I tend to work in male-dominated fields, therefore my client base is 90% male. Of course, that percentage rises as you move up the food chain into the executive levels. This means I often find myself the only “skirt” in the room when the door closes and the high-level meetings begin.
Through the years, I’ve learned a few things about how to make the most of my presence in these situations and defend my territory. There are tricks on how to balance fitting in, garnering respect, holding your own, and maintaining your composure, even through heated conversations.
1. Be prepared. Know the topic, study the details, and do your homework. This will ensure your confidence and your ability to answer a question promptly and correctly. Executives like straight answers. CEOs want you to respond like a calculator when numbers are in question.
2. Be on time. Rather, be early. Set up your computer, iPad, whatever you may have. Set the tone for the room with your presence, chat with colleagues you may know. If you are late, be sure you discretely apologize, take a seat, and do not offer details. No one wants to hear it. This especially pertains to having a sick child, or other “female” reasons, no matter how valid. It will only diminish your position amongst the audience.
3. Sit at the big table. There are times a conference room gets overfilled and seats are brought in, forming a perimeter around the room. Do not sit in one of those seats; sit at the conference table, as this is where the big boys will sit. There will always be a spot saved for the CEO and the President at the conference table. Arrive early and get yours.
4. Do not fidget; keep your cool, even under pressure. Especially under pressure. There is nothing more compelling and impressive than someone in control when the heat is on. Remember that body language says everything, even more so than a straight face and calm voice. It’s the whole package that gets noticed, especially as a woman in a room full of men. If a point arises where conversations get heated, do not raise your voice, but rather interject your comments and opinions when the conversation has settled. No one hears anything when everyone talks at once, and a raised voice can infer an emotional response rather than a pragmatic one.
5. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make one up, especially if it is a question regarding money. Never, ever just blurt out a figure as a proposed cost, even if you’re assured, “I won’t hold you to it.” Yes, they will. Women tend to feel like they have to oblige instantaneously. Avoid this urge, and oblige only after being fully prepared and informed.
6. If you are wrong or at fault, own up to it. Should the meeting be about your businesses’ performance, progress on a project, or lack thereof–be honest. Next, offer a solution; or, better, discuss the progress on the solution that you have already put in place. Don’t let the situation devolve to bullying, and don’t take any more crap than necessary. Be respectful and take responsibility where you own it, but be careful of any “enemies” who may take advantage of this situation to rant or expand the situation to belittle you or your business.
7. Never, ever cry. Period.
These bullet points may sound a bit stoic, but it is important to be seen as an equal in these situations. In business, someone may not like you; but, if they respect you, that can be even better.