I’m sure that anthropologists have watched people in organizations hold meetings. Academic meetings are a variation that I’m more familiar with. I am not an anthropologist but find it interesting to pretend I am, and perhaps see things through the eyes of a different discipline.
So while on this quest to understand meetings, I first noticed the power games. The pros know how to get what they want and control what they need to in order to get it. The body language is very important … act disinterested, lean back, don’t sit too close to the table, cross your legs, don’t fiddle with things, and so on. The champs have – what we used to call in the Navy – excellent circuit discipline. They only use their words on their own issues and restrain themselves the rest of the time.
This comes across as wisdom. So when they do speak others assume it must be important, partly because this person’s specific voice is heard infrequently and hasn’t settled into the familiar background hum of the meeting in question. Invariably, these masters of the wise comment speak slowly and with a deep voice. [I once took a communications seminar where I was taught, before giving a speech, to retire to the men’s room and do humming exercises which would lower my voice.] The observations above led to my finding that the meeting champs are invariably men.
Of course, we all have been in meetings where competent women made contributions to the conversation. But ask yourself, in how many of these was the woman in question actually running the meeting? My unscientific perception is that the role of mere female participant creates an immediate meeting disadvantage. Unless the woman holds a power role in the group, speaks slowly, infrequently, and only on certain issues, and has a deep, well-modulated voice, she may not be heard very well if at all. “Command presence” is a phrase that military and law enforcement people use that could describe this. It comes quite naturally if you are six and a half feet tall, carry your 250 pounds all in muscle, and have a deep, well-modulated voice. [caveat: there are some women out there like this and it works for them.]
Several years ago, in a conversation around a New York City restaurant table, a young, bright, well-educated woman began exploring this concept out loud with the others. I surprised myself by suddenly recalling numerous characteristics like those above, that turned into a checklist for this young woman as she considered future meetings she would be involved in. What arrested me most in this conversation was her lack of awareness of these dynamics. What seemed straightforward to me emerged as unexpected and uncharted territory for her. I risked noting that I remembered meetings where I was distracted by women who spoke using increasingly higher and more “strident” voices, accelerating the speed of their “chatter”, often accompanied by rapid hand motions, usually in direct correlation to the plunging and deteriorating interest of the men in the meeting. It illustrated Peter Senge’s idea of the reinforcing loop. In effect, it was a death spiral for the woman who attempted to contribute to the dialogue. The more frantic her meeting tactic the more the men ignored her. Notice the use of the words “strident” and “chatter” – we don’t use these very often when describing men. By the time her attempts faded into the background hum of the meeting she no longer had a role. If you have ever operated a VHF radio, you’ll understand how the “squelch” button cuts out the static. Every man in the meeting had hit his squelch button because her contributions were perceived as static.
A few months ago I watched a highly competent, thoroughly-educated mature woman with formidable experience in several key areas participating in a meeting with four or five men. The men automatically, systematically, and maybe inadvertently or innocently, simply shut her down. Several important insights she contributed early in the meeting were later introduced by one or another of the men, word for word, and received by the remaining men with acclamation as exciting new ideas. Not one hearer realized that she had already articulated these. It was as if she had never been heard. [And she wasn’t being strident or chattering.]
She quite obviously and painfully did not have a voice at the table.
So here are some amateur anthropological findings:
- Men and women by definition do not occupy equal places around the table in a meeting.
- Position titles and power roles may work to level the playing field, but not always.
- Voice may be the ability to contribute to a group discussion, but often it is at the mercy of others [this is especially true in a mixed-gender meeting].
- No matter how insightful and competent the contribution, one or two powerful males, whether they realize it or not, can disable and render harmless and ineffectual statements made by a woman in a meeting.
- These actions can control, intimidate, ignore, or deprecate the contribution of a woman, thereby quashing her voice.
- A conscious and conscientious effort by at least one man, especially if he is the meeting convener, can be affirming, clarifying, appreciative, supporting, engaging, empowering, challenging, validating, authenticating and “mutualizing” for the women around the table.
- Not many men get this.
Sound like any meetings you’ve been in lately?
Should I become an anthropologist?