In part 1 of this piece I talked about the basic challenges that can lead to women holding back or being overlooked in meetings and discussions. However it’s not simply a matter of women conquering their fears to overcome participation, once they do this you’ll have more voices in the room, but if you think you’re about to benefit from diverse thinking, especially a female point of view, then think again as that doesn’t necessarily follow once they have their voice. Let me explain.
Women really want to be an equal player in the workplace. They value equality and believe that hard work should be rewarded and recognized. If only we can be perceived as ‘one of the guys’ we can be heard and achieve equality right? Wrong. Achieving ‘one of the guys’ status does not provide any benefits related to gaining insight from feminine intuition. How so?
What percentage of a group needs to be female before a female perspective is raised on issues? Higher than 40%. While businesses are trying to get excited about increases in the number of females in the workplace they are still falling woefully short of the critical number to have a women’s perspective heard.
In a research study, they knew from a survey that on a certain topic women held different views than men, so in a follow up study they used a meeting forum to experiment with how many women in the room were required before the point of view expressed in the survey results became a view expressed in the
meeting. It wasn’t until 60-80% women were in the meeting that the view showed up.
I came across that research shortly after I had been interviewing people in software development. My motivation was to examine how unintended gender bias shows up in the decision making process of software development. I interviewed men and women from different disciplines and at different levels of seniority on the topic. The only job discipline group that didn’t admit to using personal opinions at work was research type disciplines, where it was felt that representation of unbiased data was what provided them with credibility to do their job well. However most other disciplines interviewed did say that they did bring personal opinion to discussions and decision making. They would bring personal needs to bump up feature requests, decide on what to build based on what engineering challenges they wanted to take on or skill they wanted to develop. There was one type of opinion that women said they never or extremely rarely used - it was an opinion that would identify them as a woman. The women interviewed said they are very cautious in ever raising a point of view that explicitly supports a female perspective. The justifications for this behavior included not wanting to seem different from the others and being seen as a woman, why put forward an idea when it’s not going to have critical mass support for making it on the feature list (no one wants to suggest ideas that are going to be rejected), and also one woman realized it never dawned on her to have a woman’s point of view as she’s worked so long as a ‘guy’ that she only tackled problems with critical evaluation perspective and not from her personal female experience. While I don’t think in real world situations it will take 60-80% female representation before a female perspective is heard, let’s just say it is far above the 20% that is present in many business today.
Women account for 51% of the population and are often touted as influencing 80% of the purchasing decisions. I think it’s worth making sure a female insight isn’t accidentally overlooked or ignored.
Let’s start with some advice to increase the amount of heard female participation in the meetings:
1. Ask questions of individuals rather than leaving it for those with the loudest voices to hold air time. And don’t just launch in the first time you try it with, “Rebecca, what do you think?”, make sure there’s a warm up question or two so Rebecca can have a mental prep time.
2. Watch for signals that Rebecca wants to contribute she will be giving cues of wanting to participate but the floor will not provide the opening.
3. Ask questions to insure you’re getting a well-rounded perspective on your customer from a business perspective. “Although we know product X is for men and women, is there anything in particular we need to consider for women, given this team is mostly men designing it?”
4. Let everyone know that even though decisions are being made in the room if people have ideas to share after the meeting send mail or catch ‘me’ later. Better to get the feedback a little late than not at all. In the next meeting thank people individually for their follow ups so they feel recognized.
5. And women who are more senior in the room – it’s your job too to enable other women as well. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their contribution, but women can also not enable other women in the same way as men operate.