Girl Interrupted

We've all had those meetings where you say something and no one responds, the conversation moves on, and later on in the same meeting someone else takes your idea and everyone responds positively to it. Don't you hate that? 

I really do. 

I've been thinking a lot about this phenomenon lately. For us women in the workplace, this is not all in our head. It is well documented, here and here and here and here. Men mansplain, they talk over you, they take your ideas, they dominate meetings. And this can erode our self confidence and how we are seen by our peers and our boss. I hate to say it, but it can hurt your career trajectory. 

There are several concrete things that an organization can and should do to try to stop this habit from forming or for tackling it once it is in full swing. These include: 

  1. Make a no interruptions rule. Period. No interrupting while someone is speaking. Post it on the walls of your meeting rooms.
  2. Make sure everyone has time in the meeting to speak - go around the table or call on people who haven't shared opinions. 
  3. Provide unconscious bias training for all staff (and make attendance mandatory).
  4. Mix up meeting formats to allow for different personality types and styles to shine. Meetings don't always have to follow the same format - try card sorting exercises, white boarding, pair people up to generate ideas in teams. 

I've worked at places with some or all of these practices in place. Beyond organizational support, a very important component is also what you are going to do about it. You will be in a meeting (likely often) where your voice isn't heard. You need some strategies to try out and see which work for you and your company culture. Here are some I've used in my own manterrupted episodes (credit to Jessica Bennett for that phrase).

Find an ally
If the interruptions are epidemic where you work or always perpetrated by a few lone wolves, you can try to find an ally. Best allies for this are men who have some power in the room, but another woman can also be your wing woman here. The goal - have a signal that you can use to let them know you have something to say or that you are having trouble being heard. They can then jump in and say "Sarah has an idea we should listen to" or "I want to hear what Kelly has to say."

Be Subtle, But Take Credit Back
I hate to say it, but sometimes people don't know they are being obtuse and you have to point it out. Jump in right after the person restates your idea and say "Jeff, great idea, that is what I was trying to say 10 minutes ago. I'm glad you brought it back up. Here's my take on it." Maybe Jeff won't pick up on it, maybe he will. Either way, you are back on the board. 

Be Direct, Privately
Sometimes you have to nip this in the bud, directly. After an especially egregious meeting, take Johnny aside and tell him what you are observing. This can be awkward. Hopefully you have a good working relationship and mutual respect with this co-worker and he will hear what you have to say. At the very least, it may make him think twice in the next meeting. You can even try to make him an ally. Suggest he helps you get your ideas across in the next meeting!

Lobby for your ideas
Oftentimes decisions are made in side conversations or in smaller pre-meetings. If you are having trouble getting your ideas heard in a larger setting, nail the pre-meeting politicking. Have one on one meetings with key decision makers to plant seeds of your ideas with them. Ask for their support in the larger meeting. 

Pick your battles
Sometimes this is not the hill you should die on. If you find certain meetings or certain people just can't be changed, mix it up. Either start skipping these meetings, de-emphasize the importance of these meetings in your mind, follow up the meeting with key points in an email or find other ways to drive your agenda without fixing this problem. I have found sometimes sitting quietly speaks volumes.

What strategies have you employed to deal with being interrupted at work? Share your tips.