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Women at Work: The Unspoken Rule of Meetings

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On a blisteringly hot day in California, I recently accompanied a powerful female lawyer whom I coach to a meeting with a new male judge. Just before she entered the room, she put on a sweater. "What are you doing -- it's sizzling!?" I said incredulously. "I can't go in there with exposed arms," she explained as if I were an idiot. "What would he think of me?"

It costs more time and energy being a woman than being a man. In the business world, this makes everything unnecessarily necessary for a woman. Even in something as mundane as a meeting, women have to think about their looks and their behavior. They have to think, "How will others perceive/judge me?" Should I wear red shoes? Which earrings? No earrings? Hair up or down? Should I be aggressive or sensitive?

Men have the luxury of not having to worry about such details. Instead, they can devote their brains to developing cunning strategies to advance their own interests and careers. Men often see meetings as a chance to profile themselves, particularly if the boss or an important customer is in attendance. They will speak up, even if they have little of value to offer -- the main point is that everybody sees them talking. Women will often not speak up unless they have something important to say. Who's going to win the deal?

In addition to the tedium and insipidity of the typical meeting -- dreaded by male and female alike -- women have to think about their voices, their gestures, their eye contact, their style and their very woman-ness. Men simply don't have to worry about these things. This is utterly unfair, but until women occupy more executive positions, these unspoken rules of meetings will remain a challenge for them.

Voice: Some women end their sentences with an upward inflection of the voice. This makes them sound insecure, looking for approval, and weak. Others have high-pitched voices, which is fine except that in male-dominated meetings, deep voices convey authority, high voices weakness or insecurity. Women have to accept and deal with this. Even such a powerful personage as Margaret Thatcher employed a voice coach to lower her vocal tone and thereby increase the impact of her words.

Eye contact: In cultures across the world, a direct gaze by a woman may be seen as threatening or alluring. There are complex cultural, historical and political reasons for this. Businesswomen simply have to take these into consideration and think about consciously adapt their behavior to fit the situation.

Gestures: Seemingly innocuous gestures such as touching the hair, a flick of the wrist, etc., send powerful non-verbal signals. A woman might be presenting quarterly sales figures while her male audience is thinking, "Gee, she reminds me so much of my girlfriend." Women have to be aware of and train their body language to enforce their message.

The Man-Frau: Some women turn themselves into ersatz men, awkwardly stomping around the office in baggy trousers and mannish shoes, somehow seeking the approval of their male counterparts while attempting to establish their authority over other females. Women who dress, behave and look like men are fine if this is authentic. If not, they will appear as freaks to both sexes, someone who's acting a role and doesn't feel comfortable in her own skin.

Make-up and Jewelry: In global business culture women tend to wear some type of make-up and jewelry. For good or ill, these decorative accoutrements consciously and subconsciously send signals of femininity and sexuality. This can be charmingly effective but only when aware businesswomen understand the impact and the situational appropriateness of the signals they are sending out.

The business playing field, dominated by men, is challenging for businesswomen. And at times frustrating. But it is reality. Successful businesswomen are consciously aware of these realities. By being aware, they create and adopt strategies to excel. Their male competitors have the advantage of not having to expend energy on thinking about their maleness. Content, they can slouch upon Zeus's golden throne. Powerful women, though, are aware of their might and influence: their woman-ness. Consciously, and with will and determination, they grasp Athena's mighty spear in one hand and balance upon the open palm of the other, the Owl of Wisdom.