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Thriving among the old boys: Eight tips for women in the boardroom

I’ve heard lots of advice for women in the boardroom throughout my career, but none of which prepared me for the reality.  I remember sauntering up to the boardroom for my first meeting as HR Director with the board and shareholders, only to discover that in contrast to the three of us women, there was a pack of men, 17 of them, all in grey suits, all with loud voices and taking up lots of physical space.

So here are a few of the things I’ve learnt over the years that stood me in good stead:

  1. Always sit in the middle of the room. Hiding at the end of the table hints at discomfort in being there and can be read as wanting to disappear. Sitting in the middle enables you to subtly observe the whole room, who’s attentive, who’s falling asleep, who’s angry, and who seems indifferent. From this you will get a sense of what matters to each individual.  You will also notice people’s habitual neighbours. Do they always sit together with certain people? Do they interact during the meeting? It can be especially good fun to watch who picks up their smart phone at the same time – you will notice executives sending messages to each other the way schoolchildren pass around notes during class. You’re also more likely to find yourself sitting beside someone new with an opportunity to bond over the tea and biscuits.
  2. Watch your posture. Don’t do anything to make yourself smaller than you are already. Spine straight, shoulders back, alert and attentive. Believe it or not, this will change your mood, and zap any lack of confidence you might be feeling. Make sure you make steady eye contact with your colleagues – eye contact can be friendly or direct.  It can indicate interest or be used to dominate.   Notice the body language you see around the table that portrays the most confidence and mirror it gradually till you find a level that’s comfortable for you.
  3. Smile. There’s lots of negativity out there about women’s so called ‘agreeableness’ – a trait that makes women seem ‘nice’, but is also seen as a weakness. You can be both ‘agreeable’ and ‘disagreeable’ in equal measure. I know because I am. All this means is that, while you may want to build relationships and create harmony and be liked (all perceived to be feminine qualities), you won’t hesitate to stand up for yourself and defend your point of view.  Many women try to emulate the worst aspects of male behaviour, and instead discover that they’re perceived by their male colleagues as a ‘cold fish’ lacking any human warmth, which limits their ability to influence.
  4. Manage your emotions – possibly the most important piece of advice and applicable to anyone male or female. If you want to influence others, then noticing your emotions and consciously choosing your responses instead of simply reacting to your emotions can make all the difference.  Women are expected to be overly emotional. Men are expected to be aggressive.  Both are stereotypes and you’re just as likely to find yourself witnessing emotional men and aggressive women as the other way around.  Be alert to the possibility of your own unconscious bias.
  5. Don’t waffle – tell it like it is – executives in the boardroom are predominantly outcome-focused and opinionated and don’t wait for permission to express themselves. If you are surrounded by noisy, argumentative men, up the ante yourself. But don’t get aggressive – humour used with insight helps to break the tension and your colleagues will appreciate a good laugh.
  6. Don’t try hard to be liked – being liked has more to do with the way other people feel about themselves in your presence, and senior, experienced people can sense inauthenticity a mile away.  When in charge, create an atmosphere where people feel able to be themselves by encouraging them to share their feelings about the things they really care about.
  7. Be fair. Don’t let yourself lapse into blaming gender stereotypes for anything you might be feeling. Avoid self-pity at all costs and instead focus on co-creating solutions. You will find you create allies effortlessly as a result.
  8. Be inclusive. This is especially important when dealing with the more introverted people on the board. Be the one to draw them out of themselves, ask their views, and treat their opinions with care and respect. They will return the favour by coming out in support of you and your views when you most need them.

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