This is a common occurrence experienced by women in professional services sectors, particularly when meeting a brand new client or new client team members. It comes from the unconscious bias that the man must be the more senior person. This is extremely frustrating and can potentially cause several issues including:
- Your personal frustration and annoyance at the assumption.
- Your client’s embarrassment when they realise you are the more senior person.
- Your colleague’s awkwardness or potentially a feeling of superiority, depending on your colleague.
None of these promote a positive and effective start to any meeting. So how can you get round this? Are there steps you can take to make sure the roles are clear? The simple answer is ‘yes’ and I wanted to share some simple ideas with you, to avoid this situation happening.
Before the meeting
- In advance of the meeting, include a paragraph on the meeting invitation that sets out who is attending from your company and their title. If appropriate, this can look less stark by a bit more context with regard to each person’s role in the project/service of the client. Another way is to send an email to introduce yourself, if the meeting is already in the diary.
- Make sure your style of dress is appropriate – even if it’s fairly casual make sure it’s polished, yet not preppy. As we become more senior, a sense of personal style is important (it’s not about fashion). Avoid looking like you are in an office uniform – a black suit or even just black skirt/trousers with an unimaginative top (especially in white) is rarely essential except in some legal scenarios, so most of the time will make you look like you are more junior.
During the meeting
- Your posture is visible from a distance and communicates something about your intention and confidence instantly, so make sure you have a straight back and take up some space in an open pose.
- Make sure you are the one to step into the room/stand up first so that you can introduce yourself first and be the one to introduce your colleague (if they don’t know him already). Your handshake needs to be firm with good eye contact – confidence at this moment is essential as it sets the tone.
- Once you are seated, avoid fiddling with pens or other items and make sure you use some hand gestures. Hands held in your lap make you look more anxious and don’t help you communicate seniority.
- In most cases, your firm would be the meeting lead, so make sure you speak up early. Even if your colleague has worked on the project/client longer, make sure you speak up early in the meeting to assert your authority and credibility. Although, do defer to your colleague when appropriate, for instance if there is a detail question that he may have more knowledge of day-to-day. The ability to do this shows strength not weakness.
- When you do speak, make sure your voice has credibility – sufficient volume to be heard, words clearly enunciated and the pace not too fast. Remember variation in tone is vital to maintain engagement. If you are in a meeting full of men and you typically have a quieter voice, this is the time to speak up. Breathing from lower than your throat helps to give you the dual benefit of greater power in your voice and slower speech.
- Remember to pause, this helps if you have just said something important as it gives people time to reflect and makes you look confident, as you are happy with a moment of silence. You clearly haven’t just forgotten what you wanted to say as the pause isn’t filled with “umms and errs”.
- At the end of the meeting, summarise what the next steps are and if appropriate outline what you are delegating to your more junior colleague i.e. what they will be back in touch with (in a polite and respectful way).
One of the most important things to remember is that in all likelihood, it is not your colleague’s fault that the client has assumed they are the more senior person, it’s the unconscious bias of the client. Therefore, the focus should not be on diminishing your colleague’s role in the meeting but asserting yours, in an appropriate way. It’s about the tips above but also your mindset and confidence that you are the more senior person.
Joanna Gaudoin runs Inside Out Image, working with professional people to help them communicate themselves positively and engage effectively with others, to build positive relationships at work. She runs workshops, speaks at events and works with clients one-to-one. If you’d like to receive her free 6 part ‘Boost Your Personal Impact’ guide then click here. Prior to re-training and running Inside Out Image, Joanna spent a decade in marketing and consultancy so she is well placed to advise clients on the core aspects of image and impact – appearance, non-verbal communication and voice, as well as skills and confidence for different business scenarios. Insideoutimage.co.uk