Moving the Needle on Conversation Dominance

I recently wrote an article entitled “Tired of Missing Out on the Credit You Deserve?” in which I discussed the inequity of women vs. men in the boardroom. I examined the phenomena where women can be interrupted or dismissed in favor of their male counterpart even when the circumstance doesn’t support that gender bias.

Jessica Kirkpatrick (Cosmetologist turned Data Scientist – how is that for a transition?) goes into even more detail in her article Stop Interrupting Me. She shares many personal examples of which this is my favorite:

I am at a party. The topic of physics (or cosmology, or data science) comes up.  A male I have just met proceeds to explain to me a New York Times article he has read on the subject. I mention that I have my PhD and I’m an expert on the topic. Instead of using this as an opportunity to ask me questions and learn from me, he continues talk about what he knows. Bonus points: He turns to my boyfriend―who isn’t a physicist or a data scientist―and asks him questions about the topic.

Rough. Jessica shares further information on the topic that she has researched from several other articles, information of gender bias and conversation dominance by the males in a discussion over the favor of the women in the room. 

The solutions she identifies, as do the other articles she quotes, involves huge shifts in the sociology of how we are raising our children, boys and girls. Girls to be polite and accepting that “boys will be boys.” The articles talk about the need to change Corporate American and create a 180 degree shift in business culture.

Frankly, it is overwhelming, daunting and just a little bit defeatist. As the working mother of both a young girl and boy I read these articles wondering if even my children will see a change in how genders are viewed in the next twenty years.

However, I am not one to suggest that a task is too daunting. I just talked the other day about the importance of women taking on tasks that appear too large to achieve in the article Are you Unknowingly Sabotaging Your Career Advancement.

I know in my heart that one person can make a difference. That is why I believe so strongly in the power of mentoring, paying it forward and being a sponsor to younger career professionals. 

One of the suggestions that Jessica made in her article jumped out at me as something we can do starting today to make a difference in the conversation dominance, especially for women leaders with the power and ability to affect change:

Create spaces for those who have trouble being heard or breaking into conversations.  
Structure meetings so that everyone is given a chance to speak, and limit the duration so that everyone gets a fair representation in the meeting.  
 
If you notice a member of your team is not participating or not being heard, discuss the issue with them privately and try to come up with a solution that feels comfortable to this person.
When you notice that someone is interrupting or talking over someone else, say “Excuse me, XXX was speaking, please let him/her finish before you continue your thought.”  This is especially important if you are in a more powerful position (because of status, age, race, gender, or seniority) and the person being interrupted is in a less powerful position.
 
 
Jessica has a great point. As we examine the people on our team or in our department, we know those that are shy or tend to be overlooked or don’t feel confident enough to speak up and share their ideas. If we start small with our department meetings or staff sessions and give each person the opportunity to speak, we will begin to create a communication culture where everyone has the opportunity to share.
 
If, however, we are the ones that have a tendency to be shut down, interrupted or overlooked, we need to start by examining our confidence level. Actively seek out a mentor who can help advocate on your behalf. Someone who will speak up and say “Excuse me, xxx was speaking…” as in the example from Jessica.
 
In the article 10 Ways Society Can Close the Confidence Gap, the author ends by sharing these thoughts:
 
Telling women to operate more like men in the public sphere, change their speech, change their hair, change their clothes and change their style of expression will only amplify androcentric norms. If we want to close the confidence gap, of course it helps to talk to women about self-doubt, but really closing this gap, as with all the others — pay, safety, rights — requires structural changes in every institution we live with. That’s a matter of collective will that we are still painfully lacking. I predict that feminism will die, well, at least a dozen more times before that happens. 
 
There isn’t a quick solution to the ingrained behaviors that have create a communication structure such as we see today in business, however, that isn’t to say it can’t be changed.
 
One person at a time. One conversation at a time.
 
Start by being aware. Notice who dominates in the meetings. Listen for those who have ideas but you are interrupted. Take a deep breath and interject your own thoughts and solutions.
 
Together, we can make a different. 
 
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JJ
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Keynote speaker for women: JJ DiGeronimo, keynote speaker for women, based in Cleveland, presents keynote addresses on women in leadership, diversity in business and advancement for women.