When President Barack Obama first took office, in 2008, one-third of the women in leadership positions in his office were women. Two-thirds of these positions were filled by men, some of whom were known for their brash, dominant personalities, including then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and economic adviser Lawrence Summers. Consequently, “the West Wing was a well-documented bastion of testosterone,” reports Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post, and the women on Obama’s staff recalled having to “elbow their way into important meetings.” During those meetings, female staffers were sometimes ignored or not given credit for their good ideas.
Frustrated with this state of affairs, the women adopted a strategy of repeating one another’s points and giving credit to the original speaker. The practice forced the men present to acknowledge their contributions, and Obama began calling on the women in leadership roles, as well as junior aides, more often.
This anecdote from the White House may sound frustratingly familiar to women who have found themselves outnumbered and interrupted in meetings, and it will ring true to others as well. In group and team negotiations, parties with less power; negotiators who are naturally quiet or less assertive; and members of minority groups or others who have been marginalized may find they have difficulty getting attention and credit for their ideas.
3 Tips for women in leadership and junior roles who feel outnumbered at the table
At different points throughout your career, you may find yourself searching for ways to have an impact on a group’s negotiated decisions—whether you are a man or woman, a majority or minority group member, or the party in power or the underdog. When preparing to negotiate as a team or to represent your organization in a group negotiation, the three strategies outlined here can help you raise your profile and bring you closer to meeting your goals.
1. Try amplification.
If you and other members of your negotiating team, or your group as a whole, are having trouble being heard, you might privately point out the problem to your colleagues. Then propose that you follow the lead of the women in leadership positions in the Obama administration and begin echoing and supporting one another’s points and publicly giving one another credit. This strategy, which the White House colleagues dubbed amplification, can help raise your collective voice in the room.
The practice of amplifying others’ statements may feel unnatural at first, but keep at it. The tactic may make it obvious to the dominant speakers that they’ve been drowning out others. If so, they may make a conscious effort to share “airtime” with those whose voices have been disregarded. If they don’t, keep amplifying one another to be heard.
2. Don’t miss pre- and post-meetings.
In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, consultants Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt write that in surveys and interviews with top executives, they learned that men and women tend to approach meetings differently. The women they studied tended to be more efficient, arriving at meetings right on time and rushing off at the end of the meeting to get back to work. Men, by contrast, tended to arrive early to chat with colleagues and get a good seat, then linger afterward to debrief the meeting and perhaps cover other issues.
Moving beyond gender differences, the finding serves as a useful tip for anyone who feels marginalized in group negotiations: Plan to arrive a little early and stay a little late. By being present for “meetings before the meetings,” you can share your ideas and opinions in a more informal, smaller group and increase your odds of being part of the broader conversation. Notably, the researchers say that their results likely also apply to members of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as men with reserved personalities.
If you’re uncomfortable speaking in large groups, you can also try reaching out to fellow negotiators one-on-one between meetings to share your ideas. To overcome stage fright in the meeting itself, be sure to prepare thoroughly. Don’t be afraid to bring notes that you can glance at to keep yourself on track; no one should judge you for being well prepared and organized.
3. Enlist the support of leaders.
Heath, Flynn, and Holt asked 30 top women in leadership and executive roles to name one thing that could be done to raise women’s profiles in male-dominated meetings. Many of them said that meeting leaders and bosses could make more of an effort to ask women direct questions or otherwise draw them into the discussion.
This sort of direct intervention from leaders may be necessary in group negotiation if dominant voices aren’t letting others get a word in edgewise. At a dinner in November 2009, for example, several senior female White House aides complained to Obama that he was giving greater access to men, who were muscling them out of important policy discussions, the Post reports. The criticism reportedly contributed to Obama’s efforts to call on women more often in meetings.
Asking leaders of a group or team negotiation to draw overlooked parties into the conversation is one way to make sure that these parties’ voices are heard. If one or more negotiators continue to dominate, a leader might take that person or people aside to offer feedback or address the issue directly with the group, perhaps offering some quick training on active-listening skills.
What negotiation tips would you offer to someone who struggles to be heard in group settings?