woman walking on tightrope

It’s a Balancing Act. Especially for Women

Work/Life balance isn’t the only balance that women in business need to balance. Showing up with strong Executive Presence requires a distinctive kind of balancing and it can be a tightrope.

On the one side is the risk of appearing “too feminine” (which can undermine our credibility) and on the other is the danger of acting “too masculine” (which can cause some male colleagues to think we are being witchy.)

Here are some tips that can help improve your stability.

Speak Up!

Take credit for your contributions. If a colleague appropriates your idea during—or after—a meeting without giving you credit; speak up. Here are examples of some things you could say:

  • “Interesting you should say that. That’s exactly the point I was making.”
  • “Thanks for picking up on that idea. I’m glad you like it.”
  • “I think you may have been distracted when I made that point earlier. Thanks for agreeing with me.”

My clients have found that when they speak up with positive intent it is well received by their peers and they feel more in control of how they are treated and perceived.

Be Heard!

Studies show that men will ignore women’s ideas when they make up less than 1/5 of the room. So, if the number of women in a room is less than 20% of the total number of people in that room, you need to speak up. Quite literally. Increase the volume of your voice by 2 notches. Make sure you are heard.

In related research, the American Journal of Medicine found that men are affected by hearing loss twice as often as woman. Hearing loss in men typically begins around age 45 and levels off around age 65. These are the career years when men often rise to higher and higher positions of power and authority. AND that as men age they lose the upper end of their register first.

Since women’s voices typically are higher—and softer—than male voices this means that when you think a man, or group of men, are discounting you it could be that they literally did not hear you. (Also, that they could probably use a trip to their local ENT.)

And so. Speak up. Be heard!

While we are on the subject of your Voice…

Avoid a “pleading” tone. Breathe deeply and add warmth to your voice ending on a low pitch, instead of “upspeak”. Upspeak has the impact of making statements sound like questions. Ending on a low pitch will make you sound more confident.

A lower pitch will also resonate better with any man in your world who may be losing his hearing.

Watch your Pace

My clients are fast. They get things done. They have a lot on the go. Unfortunately, one of the implications of being so fast is that often they speak quickly too.

People who speak too quickly can be experienced as being either nervous or immature. A slower pace reads as authoritative and wise.

My colleague Kenny Raskin shared this with me recently:

When one speaks fast, the words go from the brain to the mouth and out. When one speaks slowly, the words go from the brain to the heart, then to the mouth and out.  The words are said with feeling, and so, better understood.

Beware of Minimizers

Women often use hedges, disclaimers or tag questions in an effort to maintain relationships. This sabotages our contributions. When men hear minimizers, they incorrectly assume we either doesn’t know what we are talking about, or that we are insecure about our ideas.

Phrases like these weaken our position:

  • Could you do me a favor…
  • I was wondering if there was any way we could…
  • I sorta think…
  • I kinda wondered if we could perhaps do something like…

Say what you think and what you want. Don’t apologize or water it down. Try Power Language instead: 

  • I recommend that we…
  • My point is…
  • I have an idea…
  • The numbers indicate…

When you say what you mean, you’ll be heard, understood and respected.

Break the I’m Sorry habit

Stop saying I’m sorry every time a coworker asks you to move out of the way so they can get to the fridge. Karina Schumann and Michael Ross’ paper Why Women Apologize More Than Men found that women are 37% more likely than men to say sorry.

The I’m sorry habit minimizes your status. It telegraphs that you think you are ‘less than’. It makes you small.

An interesting exercise is to count how many times in a workday you say it. One of my clients was shocked that she said it 47 times—and it was only Monday.

These two little words also make serious demands sound like requests: “I’m sorry, but I think maybe we’d all be a little more comfortable if you’d lower your voice” sounds like an option. On the other hand: “John, I value your thoughts, but I won’t be spoken to in that tone. I’ll come back when you’ve calmed down” is a powerful statement.

Stop over Explaining

There is no reason to justify everything little thing. Women often fill silences with assurances to soften our message. There is no need to explain that your kid has a doctor’s appointment because she’s been having ongoing ear infections and that no one at your house got any sleep last night and that you are the only one that can take her to the appointment and you couldn’t even GET an appointment until the end of the week.

Try this instead: “I’m taking Friday off for personal reasons. If you need something done before then, please let me know and I’ll arrange to take care of it.”

Don’t take criticism personally. (Most men don’t)

When you receive negative feedback thank the person for being honest with you, listen to the points being shared and then implement changes to things you can change to help you become more effective.

Again, beware of explaining—or over explaining—why you did what you did. It leaves the impression that you are not open to the feedback.

Use Statements instead of Questions

You’ll get better buy-in to your ideas with statements instead of questions. When you lead with a question you give someone the opportunity to immediately disagree with you—or shut you down. Put your idea out there first and then take questions about it after. 

Instead of: Would you be willing to think about an alternate strategy? Use Power language: I recommend we implement strategy X. Here’s why: Reason 1. Reason 2. Reason 3.

THEN ask a question: What do you think? -or- What from this proposal works for you?

Drop the Tiara and own your career path

Do you have the Tiara syndrome? Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, the founders of Negotiating Women, Inc., have said…women expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head. That never happens. What is happening, however, is that their male co-workers are probably making substantially more because they’ve gotten hip to the idea that employees have to initiate negotiations to climb the corporate ladder.

Don’t wait around to be noticed. Be proactive about finding out how you measure up against your colleagues. If you’ve been overlooked for a project, schedule a conversation with your boss. Here are some things you could say: 

  • Can you give an example of what I would need to do to get the same opportunity as Glen?”
  • I’d like to understand how my performance is different from Ian. Can you help?”
  • In your opinion, where do I stand in relation to my peers?”
  • I’m throwing my hat in the ring for project x. I feel I need this opportunity if I’m going to develop as a team member.”

Alternately, at your next performance review you could try a version of this: “Thanks for your feedback on my performance. Can you tell me what I would need to do to be considered for project x / to get an opportunity to be seen by senior management more often / to be able to work from home one day a week / to get a raise as big as Warren?”

Own your Accomplishments

When you DO get a compliment own your contribution. Say: “Thank you for noticing” instead of: “Oh, I’m just doing my job” or “It was a team effort.”

Own your space

There is an entire chapter in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In titled: Sit at the Table. She means this quite literally. Don’t take a chair at the back of the room. Sit at the boardroom table with all of the other players.

What I would add to this idea is that once you are at the table OWN YOUR SPACE! Sit up tall, lean forward more frequently; breathe deeply to expand your body. These behaviors signal confidence and interest in other people’s ideas.

Be Congruent

Your facial expression, words and body language should be aligned. Women tend to smile more than men. Be aware not to smile when you are actually angry or wanting to be serious. Smiling at the wrong time undermines your credibility and makes you appear weak—or worse, nervous.

Unless you are trying to inspire people with the best idea ever, keep your hand gestures between the belly button and mid chest. Calm gestures help us appear credible and expressive at the same time.

Find stillness in your Body

Touching your face–especially your hair, rubbing the palm of your hand with your thumb, playing with your clothes or your glasses signals discomfort and undermines your credibility.

Be mindful of when and where you touch up your make up

An important tip that your boss likely won’t be brave enough to tell you is not to touch up your make up or lipstick in public. Take it to the restroom. It signals vanity and unconsciously reminds men that you are trying to be attractive rather than adding business value.

Give Up Perfection

This tip may be hard to implement, but important to consider. Know when good is good enough. Take a step back and embrace the concept of “satisficing.”

Satisfice is a term coined by Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon in 1956. It means:

…stop looking for the perfect solution to every single problem. Accept that the first one you are satisfied with will suffice.

At it’s core is the idea that you’ll never get everything done anyway. On the day you die there will still be something on your TO DO list. Instead of fussing over every single detail of every single task, text, email and PowerPoint deck, decide what your priorities are and let go of the rest. 

Research by Barry Schwartz and Andrew Ward in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people who practice satisficing are happier than those that seek to maximize every decision too. 

Maximizers feel obligated to look at every alternative available to them and pick the perfect one. They believe that in selecting ‘the best’ option they will be happier and more fulfilled with their decision or choice than if they didn’t weigh all of their options.

However, Schwartz’ research team shows that Maximizers often feel regret in their post-choice evaluation because: “…humans have limited cognitive resources available when their options are too vast.

Quite simply, by the time the Perfectionists make their decision, they are exhausted.

This combination of worrying that you haven’t maximized your resources and being exhausted by trying to be perfect can bleed into your presence. It’s difficult to be a powerful influencer when you are tired and anxious. 

And so, to increase your presence, give up your addiction to perfection—try being satisficed instead. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for a raise!

Don’t be afraid to ask for more money. Especially if you find out that a colleague is being paid more for the same work.

First, build a convincing case. Do your homework. Find out the salary range for similar roles both within and outside the company.

Then, prepare yourself for the conversation. Make a list of successes and problems you have solved. Highlight positive feedback you’ve received from others. Start the meeting by talking about your contributions.

And finally, take a deep breath and ask for what you deserve.

Click here for additional thoughts on Executive Presence for Women or more tips on what to do and what to avoid when asking for a raise.