Admittedly, I am small in stature, have a high-pitched voice, and appear very feminine. As a result, I often go into meetings with men—especially powerful men—with a persistent fear that I will not be heard. Or, a fear that if I am heard, my ideas will be dismissed as unimportant—or even childish—because of my demeanor.
Early in life, I adopted the description William Shakespeare gives of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” With that motto in mind, I determined to be brave in those meetings, even though my heart was pounding in my ears.
Of course, you don’t have to be a small, feminine woman to struggle with such things. I have friends who are larger women and friends who are more masculine women who also struggle to be heard. We often feel overlooked simply because we are women.
Why do men overlook women? It could be they are used to relating only to men in a professional capacity, so they may not realize they are subconsciously ignoring us. It could be they have not had a lot of women in their lives giving them positive information or feedback, so they naturally gravitate toward men. Perhaps they are slightly afraid of women because they don’t understand us—or our intentions—fully.
Without excusing dismissive behavior, I have found if I don’t immediately assume bad motives, it stays my anger and frustration, becoming all the more determined to prove them wrong—to show them a better way. I look at it as a long-term process, not something that can be overcome in one meeting. It takes time to reassure them they can trust me—even rely on me. Here are some of the ways I have learned to do this over time:
I usually find myself most overlooked in meetings when I am not prepared. So I make sure I take time to prepare for meetings, planning ahead the things I want to get across. If I write things out so that my opinion is clear and confident, I find that I’m more likely to be heard when I speak up.
Part of this preparation includes research. I have learned that cold, hard facts often get a man’s attention and confirm that my interest is not grounded in an emotional reaction—a trait some men automatically expect from women. Rather than rail against this perception, I just demonstrate through my preparedness that he’s incorrect. I do not cave to an emotional rant—I stay focused on the facts and present my case as reticently as possible. That said, there is nothing wrong with expressing concerns passionately—if the subject calls for it. Passion is contagious.
I may be small, but when I present my ideas to men, I make sure I look as large and confident as possible. I sit up straight, look directly at the person or people I am trying to convince, and speak slowly and clearly. I also project my voice so it fills the room.
It’s also helpful to be aware of natural tendencies that can undermine your point. I naturally want to giggle when I’m nervous, but I’ve found it best not to giggle if I want to be heard. A guffaw is fine—but giggling will undermine my message. This took me a while to master because it was such a natural reaction for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t use humor—humor helps put everyone at ease, including myself. Smile often, feel free to add levity—but I recommend not giggling.
I also dress professionally. Much has been written in objection to this subject—of women having to go overboard to not portray a “sexy” image. If you want to be heard, however, you have to remember your clothes should not be a distraction. You should make it easy for men to look at your face—not the rest of you. I take my cues from how the men are dressing, and find a feminine version I am comfortable with. It may seem annoying we have to do this at all, but if I want to make sure my ideas are heard, this is not the time to fight that battle.
When I am presenting an idea, I confidently state my credentials on the subject. If you have an impressive degree, now is the time to bring it up. Even without a degree, past projects, extensive reading, or attended conferences can go a long way in making expertise clear. Write these out—along with the other notes of the presentation—so you don’t forget to bring them up at the right moment.
If you don’t have credentials relating to your idea, talk to others who do. Don’t be afraid to name drop—it can help get attention, and conveys you are listening to influential, successful people. I also try to use sources I know the men I’m speaking to will respect—which means I have to do some research on them, too. I have to understand how they think, who they listen to, and who they admire. If I can use sources they hold in high regard, it can highlight my ideas as trustworthy.
Sadly, even if you do all these things, you still may be overlooked or have your ideas rejected. If that happens, let it go and try again another time. Or, alter your plan after you’ve received feedback. Not all ideas are initially accepted—and some are ignored for very good reasons. Just chalk up the experience to learning and look for ways to present your ideas even more effectively the next time. The more you share helpful ideas, the more your ideas will be noticed.
JoHannah Reardon, a former Christianity Today editor, is the author of 14 books. Find them at her website: johannahreardon.com.