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Encouraging female staff to speak up with confidence

Just 8% of women find it easy to make their voice heard at work, and women are 68% more likely than men to say they never feel comfortable expressing themselves

How confident are your female employees about saying what they think during meetings, presentations and discussions? You may be surprised to discover that for many women in your organisation – no matter how extrovert, efficient and knowledgeable – it is a subject that causes inner turmoil.

For a variety of reasons women can struggle to express themselves when under pressure. This isn’t just the case for junior staff but also highly-qualified women in leadership positions. Research conducted by Rada In Business found that just 8% of women find it easy to make their voice heard at work, and women are 68% more likely than men to say they never feel comfortable expressing themselves in a work environment.

As a gravitas expert, I regularly coach women at all stages in their career on the skills and thought processes of effective communication. And although technical expertise is essential, what becomes more valuable the more senior you get is a voice that people want to listen to and a message that lands.

Part of the solution is creating a culture where feedback is encouraged as part of the day job, rather than shared during yearly appraisals. Specific guidance on what the employee is doing well and how they can improve will create a secure mindset, leading to the ability to communicate in a calm and authoritative way.

This level of focused one-to-one support can weed out unhelpful beliefs and behaviours that are often a barrier to success for women. Imposter syndrome is a classic female trait. I often find that women I coach want to know everything about an area before they speak. Men tend to shoot from the hip a lot more, with the result that they end up using up more airtime. In my masterclasses I teach that expertise is just as much about informed opinion as retained fact.

Encouraging staff to practise making their point clearly and succinctly and knowing how to stay cool under pressure are key skills for development. As well as remaining objective, it’s vital for female employees to learn to communicate their opinions in an unemotional way, as becoming upset or angry will diminish their power. Many of my female clients find themselves blushing or getting tearful or shrill when ‘under fire’, all of which can minimise their impact.

Women can also be coached to express an opinion without preamble. Disclaimers diminish the impact of any points made. Some women say they hate delivering a presentation when all eyes are on them. They think they’re being judged on what they look like and take the victim position in their own head, and that comes across to their audience.

Success in tackling this centres around doing everything you can to help your female talent get in the most confident state. If an employee’s self-talk is negative, their brain responds in kind and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Positive self-talk will counteract this. A big part of someone’s gravitas is in their tone of voice, so train your staff to deliver opinions in a lower, quieter, non-threatening tone. A confident pose and stance, sitting straight and symmetrically with head up, shoulders back and hands on the table, or standing squarely with feet planted firmly on the floor, will also increase gravitas.

In these ways HR teams can give female employees all the ammunition and self-confidence they need to come across well when they speak. Otherwise, from graduate up to board level it will always be the men who speak more or the same women who speak every time. So encourage your less confident staff to get their voice in the room as early as possible and to trust their gut. No-one can disagree with their opinion – it’s theirs. They need to feel comfortable expressing it so everyone gets the benefit of their opinions and expertise.

Antoinette Dale Henderson is an expert in gravitas and communication skills and author of Leading With Gravitas: Unlock The Six Keys To Impact And Influence