How to do more 'Yep' and less 'But' to advance equality

Woman interrupted . . .

Deliberately design your meetings to reduce interruptions and create a more inclusive environment for diverse voices to be heard.  

by Ruth McGowan

How to do more 'Yep' and less 'But' to advance equality

Woman interrupted . . .

Deliberately design your meetings to reduce interruptions and create a more inclusive environment for diverse voices to be heard.  

by Ruth McGowan

by Ruth McGowan

Did you see the recent report from the Harvard Business Review that found women leaders scored higher than men on the majority of critical leadership competencies? In fact, women were found to be more effective in 84% of the competencies measured.

“Women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practising self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills – HBR 25/6/19

This same research also reported a ‘massive confidence gap between younger women and their male counterparts, especially for women under 25 years of age. Thankfully this confidence-gap virtually disappears by the time women reach their 40s. However, in the meantime, organisations risk not hearing the voices of younger, competent female talent who may be struggling to build their confidence in the first decade of their career.

If you are interested in advancing gender equality, like I am, the important question to ask is ‘what can we do to build the confidence of younger women to speak up and contribute’?

Rather than blaming women for their self-doubt, it is possible to design organisational changes to make the system more inclusive.   

A practical example of changes to make in the workplace is to purposefully design meetings to be more inviting of contributions from everyone; including female staff, new employees and team members from different cultural backgrounds or diverse communities. Inclusive meetings aim to ensure everyone can have their voice heard and feel that their contribution is valued.

We interrupt … to talk about interrupting

Constant interruptions in meetings are not unusual, yet they can subtly contribute to gender disparity in many organisations as well as public discourse.

Interruptions can be disruptive or co-operative. Co-operative interruptions may be affirmative with the intention to build rapport or support a speaker. For example, when you hear someone saying “Yep, good point – totally agree” or “Uh-huh, we found the same problem”. They also include interruptions to clarify a point such as “Excuse me – could you please explain that acronym?” or “Can you elaborate on Scenario A?”

In contrast, disruptive interruptions may be a deliberate attempt by the listener to assert dominance in a conversation by controlling the floor. For example; “OK, we’ve had enough discussion on that topic, let’s move on” or “But we tried that last time, and it didn’t work”. 

Some social researchers believe there is a gender aspect to interruptions. Dr Pragya Agarwal, a behavioural scientist and mental health campaigner, has written about the tendency for men to interrupt more than women. She quotes a US study that found men interrupted 33%  more often when they spoke with women than when they spoke with other men. The research also found that over a short conversation(3-minutes), men interrupted women 2.1 times but only interrupted other men 1.8 times. (By contrast, the women on average interrupted men only once). She cites other research that found “men were more likely to interrupt women with the intent to assert dominance in the conversation, meaning men were interrupting to take over the conversation floor”.

Diverse teams make better decisions, minimising the risk of ‘group think’. However, constant disruptive interruptions in meetings can ‘shut down’ the voices of less confident team members from diverse backgrounds. The result is many organisations are missing out on the best possible outcomes of team decision making. Could this be your workplace?

Listen in

Conversational interruptions happen more often than you think.  If you are interested to see if this is an issue in your workplace, I invite you to try an experiment. Pretend you are an ‘undercover behavioural scientist’ who has been assigned the task to observe and listen to interruptions at your next team meeting. In particular, note any differences between the genders.

Stay curious, actively listening to any differences between the participants around the table or in the room. Note the gender mix in the team and the proportion of those members who represent a minority background. As the meeting progresses, listen to who has ‘the stage’. Who is doing the most talking and for how long are they speaking? Who gets to ask the follow-up questions and who receives the affirmations for their contributions? Finally, note who is doing the interruptions (use the Women Interrupted App). Are the interruptions of a co-operative nature with the result of supporting a conversation or are they disruptive and asked to dominate or take control of the conversation?

You may be surprised by what you observe in your meetings, particularly if there are differences between the genders. Research shows it’s most likely to be the male team members doing most of the talking AND the interrupting, while women contribute less frequently (or worse, shut down). If this reflects your experiences, then your organisation is likely to be missing out on the voices and contributions of competent women.

Do your team meetings have the effect of opening up conversations – or shutting them down?  We can all take practical steps to advance gender equality and design more inclusive team meetings.

10 steps to designing inclusive meetings

With commitment, it is relatively simple to step up and take action to include diverse voices in your team meetings. Consider creating your meetings to be more inclusive with these ten suggestions:

  1. Start the meeting with a discussion around ‘no-interrupting’ and encourage questions to be asked at the close of a presentation. Naming the problem and potential implications for good decision making will raise awareness.
  2. Encourage women to share the ‘power seat’ at a meeting; often at the front and near the boss/team leader.
  3. If people are prone to long, rambling questions, consider setting a time limit for questions (90-second rule, 60-second follow up).
  4. If the interruptions continue, call it out – (“Hey let her finish please”)
  5. If the voices of women and others from diverse backgrounds are absent, invite them to contribute to the conversation (“I’d like to hear from Jenna”)
  6. Give credit where credit is due for a good idea. Call it out if someone repeats another person’s idea or tries to claim it as their own. (“Yeah that’s what Fatima said 20 minutes ago!”)
  7. Avoid casual stereotypes (such as assuming women will manage the catering, or the men the IT problems).
  8. If someone has a soft voice, use a microphone. Make it easy for people to be heard; literally.
  9. Invite women to contribute, acknowledge their input and provide positive feedback when they do so (without being patronising). (“Thanks Kelsey and we appreciate your insight given your experience in ….”)
  10. If your team is relatively small, but some members tend to dominate the conversation, try ways to seek everyone’s contribution. (“OK, now we are going to go around the table and hear feedback from everyone”).

Try these steps at your next team meeting and see if you start to notice a difference in the range of voices contributing to the conversation. I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn and tell me how your experiment works out.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government and politics through her work as a consultant and coach. In 2019 she wrote Get Elected to assist candidates from diverse backgrounds to stand for office. 

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