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Seen, Not Heard? Is That You Woman?

Women often hesitate to speak up at the workplace, where they still are a minority. But, women should push fear away and make their presence felt. 

Picture this- an official meeting where the room is full of an enthusiastic young crowd who have just joined the organisation as interns. The ratio of men v/s women is not as skewed as it gets when you move higher up the ladder. The manager talks for the first 15 minutes and then opens up the discussion to the wider audience. You see many hands shoot up, and the first one to speak in most cases is a man. You might hear a woman speak but their contribution often dwarfs down in comparison to the men.

Take a different scenario like a Townhall attended by 100+ people or a business meeting with mid and senior level managers. You will be surprised (Or should I say not surprised) to see the number of women speak up, ask questions, challenge, state their point of view or simply make their presence felt – minuscule in comparison to the men. It would be unfair to conclude, that someone who doesn’t speak up in a meeting is any less competent than someone who does – after all, the ability and knowledge of a person cannot be judged just by how much and what they talk in an meeting. However, in today’s super competitive world where everyone is fighting a savage battle to be heard, speaking up is essential.

Why do women hesitate to speak up?

When I look back at my life, I used to actively participate in school and college in debates, elocution competitions, inter-college fests but, once I joined the workforce, I was a different person in the boardroom. I hesitated speaking up. The moment I entered the boardroom, I usually sat in a corner chair (like most women do) rather than being confident to take a seat at a prominent place.

There were many occasions, when I felt like asking a question or stating my differing point of view, or complementing the speaker’s talk by sharing my views/experiences but, something held me back. My throat would dry up, my stomach would start rumbling and I could hear my heart beating loudly. I only spoke when I had to. I made it real quick, spoke to the point and got done with it as soon as I could. I bit my lip when the same question that I intended to ask, but gave up thinking it to be trivial, was posed by someone else a few minutes later and not only was it answered it was acknowledged to be a ‘good question’. If only I would have mustered some courage and asked it, I wondered in hindsight.

I realized I had to be visible at work

The year 2016 saw a drastic change in my personality. It came with a job change. I knew what had worked out well in my previous organisation and what I had to change in myself. Your best critic is no one but you. I knew I had the brains, my work was thorough, I knew my stuff- what I lacked is making my presence felt. Be it networking, showcasing my work, ‘humble bragging‘ (which has become the most sought after word in the millennial dictionary) this is what I had to work on. I made sure I do it, from Day One.

I did go through the same bouts of anxiety, but I made my mind firm and spoke up- loud and clear. I analysed what went well and what can be done better after the meeting. To my luck, there was a super good bunch of people I was working with. With time and conscious effort, I found my confidence levels go up. I could see a visible difference in the way people perceived me and above all, the way I looked at myself. Before going into a meeting where I had to talk about something or simply listen to a senior leader, I made sure I did my homework thoroughly. How can I add value and differentiate myself from my peers- whats it that I bring to the table that no one else can bring? These are the questions I ask myself and work on my content accordingly.

Asking that question, delivering that kickass presentation, the sense of satisfaction which comes from the appreciation around, and the self evaluation (which is a must for me) makes it worthwhile.

I wouldn’t say that a person has to talk at every meeting, ask a question just for the sake of asking. There are meetings where I haven’t spoken a word for I really had nothing to say or contribute.

Speak up to be heard at the workplace

However, I do believe we need to make an earnest attempt to be heard- not just seen. And by ‘we’ I refer to our women folk, who most often play a passive role. When I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I was surprised to know that this is a worldwide phenomenon – not just limited to women of India or women belonging to a particular background, rank in the organisation or class.

I often wonder, if this has to do with our upbringing where we are often told not to ask too many questions, not to laugh or talk loudly, obey others, listen to your father, then as you grow older and marry – listen to your hubby and in laws. If I analyse this in the light of my upbringing, I had a gender neutral childhood – I was never fed such demeaning or gender biased thoughts. My brother and I were always given the same opportunities, education , facilities, love and respect. So, this cannot be the only reason though I believe for many women it holds true.

Be fearless and speak your mind

In my case, I think it has a lot to do with my external environment- outside my family, like the broader circle I moved with, my work environment and largely me. I had a mental blockage about things – like speaking up means showing off and I am a humble girl. Why should I brag, my work and academics will show for itself about how awesome I am. Alas, my work or academics cant talk, I need to talk about my awesomeness. We all need to talk about our accomplishments unabashedly. Those lessons in humility we learnt are no longer applicable in today’s glitzy world.

So, the next time you walk into that meeting make sure you are not one among the 100 faces who is just seen, not heard, you are the one who makes your mark felt. A senior woman leader I greatly admire, Vaishali Kasture (MD with Experion) once said “I do not fear taking the seat the head of the table, though I may be the only woman around” I do wish more women can follow her example. We own our career and these little steps we take will go a long way in building a strong women leadership. So, don’t zip your mouth, make your voice heard, ask that silly question and you wont regret it. Promise.

Published here earlier.

Image source: Movie Promo Stills/Life In A Metro

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