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Handling video calls – a woman’s guide

As a woman in business, there will be few of us who haven’t suffered the irritation of being ignored, interrupted or having men repeat the ideas we have been trying to put forward and take the credit for them. And if you do complain you are labelled as ‘awkward’ or ‘feisty’. Sigh.

If it’s happened to you, you are not alone. It’s certainly experienced by women the world over in meetings where they’re outnumbered by men. The 2019 McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report surveyed 68,000 employees and found that half the women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over…and 38% had others take credit for their ideas.

If you speak too little you can be seen as being shy and introverted, with nothing much to contribute. Speak too much you are bolshy, opinionated and, yup, there’s that word again, feisty.  And to add insult to injury, research shows that men who speak a lot in meetings are seen as being MORE competent…but women behaving the same way are seen as being LESS competent!

The big issue currently is that recent evidence is clearly showing that gender imbalances (such as those mentioned above) in virtual meetings can be even more acute than in face-to-face meetings. It can be doubly hard to get heard and contribute in online meetings – the usual body language and subtle signs that you pick up on are just not there to aid the flow of conversation. The quieter and more respectful voices become quieter and less visible, the louder voices dominate the conversation even more and influence the outcome, whether they are right or wrong in what they say. So why is this happening?

In a normal conversation, a speaker is actually interpreting a range of subtle cues to predict the end of the current speaker’s turn and work out when they can comfortably speak next. These subtle cues include changes in grammar and in volume, speed and intonation, all suggesting that the current speaker will soon stop speaking. Add in slight changes in facial expression, gaze and body language, each being unconsciously processed by everyone at the same time, and you get a clear indication that you may be able to speak next.

But you get none of these subtle clues in an online meeting. It’s difficult to work out how long to pause to let others come in. People’s signals are misjudged and everything is flatter. Someone staring into the camera looks rather blank and uninterested (when they are not). When you are speaking you don’t get the smiles and nods that show you are being listened to. The loudest voice takes over even more, further amplifying the gender differences in conversational style between men and women and leading to even less contribution from the women around the virtual meeting table. And so the gender imbalances continue on and on…

Virtual meetings, whether for business or pleasure, really matter right now.  As a business leader, you need to guard against these gender imbalances and do your best to make sure your meetings are professionally run and are inclusive for all. The simplest way to do this is at the start of every meeting, remind yourself that men and women have different conversational styles and make a conscious decision to ensure that everyone in a meeting contributes evenly.

And whilst we all love having a laugh at all the memes and epic failures of other people’s virtual meetings, and we won’t get everything right all of the time, do your best to make sure it’s not you being laughed at over a badly run meeting! You and your business reputation will benefit from it.

Read more about virtual meetings, with some handy tips on getting the best out of them, here.


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