Have you ever had a feeling of being invisible? Have you ever wondered if people could see you or hear you? Ever felt like you were Anil Kapoor from Mr India, but less hairy and minus the booming voice? Minus any voice?
If you have never had this experience but would like to try it, I highly recommend being a woman in a male-majority office meeting.
I have worked in an organization in the past where the boss did not seem too keen on hearing the female frequency of sound. Sometimes, I would say something and the proceedings would just carry on as if I had not spoken at all. I would pinch myself and the pain would remind me that no, I am not a ghost yet, and yes, the bossman just completely ignored my entire existence in this room.
It is enough to make anyone second-guess their capabilities. I would wonder, "Am I talking rubbish? Do I need to think more before I speak? Did I offend the boss in some way? Did I accidentally kill his cat when I was backing up my car in the parking lot?"
But then, I would notice that a few male colleagues would sometimes repeat my ideas in new words (the less imaginative ones might even repeat them verbatim) and their points would be celebrated with a 'Great idea, manly man!'
Also, I would remember that the boss doesn't have a cat and I don't have a car.
But mostly it was the first thing that clued me in.
After years of self-doubt and several precious woman-hours wasted in needless introspection, I looked it up on the internet. I found that women getting ignored in meetings was so prevalent it might as well have been declared a pandemic.
Turns out, our social conditioning that “men say important things” and “women say frivolous things” runs so deep that at this point, it is almost biological for all of us - men and women - to subconsciously ignore things spoken in a female pitch of voice and to sit up and take notice when a male voice pipes up.
Some women can bet on it. And do.
When Shreya was in business school, the students would be assigned groups for project work. When her group for a particular project was announced, Shreya's heart soared because she realized her best friend, Sam, was in her group. Her heart then sank because one of the most aggressive men in the class was their third group mate.
She knew from experience that this man was not interested in any opinions women voiced. When she shared this with Sam, he thought (as most decent men reading this are thinking right now) surely, she is exaggerating.
"I made a bet with Sam. I told him to repeat everything I said in group meetings verbatim, and to note the difference in our groupmate's reactions."
Shreya describes a typical group conversation for this project would go thus:
Shreya: "Maybe we should focus our strategy on marketing."
Groupmate: "I don't think marketing is the way to go right now."
Sam: "Yeah, but maybe we should focus our strategy on marketing."
Groupmate: "Great idea, Sam!"
Sam would look dumbfounded every time this happened. Shreya would give a resigned smile and collect her winnings.
Shutting-women's-voices taken to a whole new level
While some, like Shreya's groupmate, have developed an expertise in tuning out women's voices, others have honed to art enough to tune out even their written word.
Meena's organization uses a meeting software in which every Team Lead could add their pressing concerns as agenda points, ahead of the meeting.
"I felt like a lot of time in our office meetings was wasted in housekeeping discussions while pressing issues and challenges were never discussed. I shared my view with my boss and his response was to shut me down completely during meetings."
She wondered, at first, if this was intentional or a lapse of attention. To give him the benefit of the doubt, she started using the software to add her team's pressing concerns to the shared agenda, so he did not forget.
"His response made it very clear that he was not 'forgetting' to include my concerns - he was intentionally silencing me. He would see my initials against agenda points before the meeting and make it a point to skip them. Suppose, points 4, 5, and 6 were added by me to the Agenda, he would discuss 1, 2, 3, and then jump straight to points 7, 8, 9."
With time it became plain to everyone on the Team that points with Meena's initials on them were being overlooked by design.
"It was extremely infuriating. I knew this was because I was a woman because men added agenda points all the time, but no man would have such an experience during meetings. He was not only being unfair, but being shamelessly public about it too."
Whose idea was it anyway?
And then there are the bosses who do hear the idea a woman contributes in a meeting. But then manage to forget all about the woman and walk away with the laurels the idea gets them.
Soon after returning from maternity leave, Richa saw scope for improving things in her team and made a suggestion at the team meeting.
"I suggested that we could invite Heads of other teams in our office to be Guest Speakers for our team meetings to help us we understand what they do. We usually had speakers from faraway business units and scheduling them in would always be hard."
Richa's boss liked the idea and promptly implemented it too. The first session went so well that many other teams came in to attend it. Richa was ecstatic at the response.
However, by the time the session ended, her boss seemed to have tragically suffered short-term amnesia and had entirely forgotten whose idea it all had been.
"At the end of the session, I saw him walk towards me. I thought he would give me a small appreciation or acknowledgment for coming up with the concept. Instead, he turned to a male colleague next to me and said, 'What did you think of this session? I want to discuss some other ideas along these lines with you'."
Richa looked on in shock while the two men walked away, deep in conversation on how to take her idea forward.
It is not even just the workplace.
The social conditioning - "men say important things" and "women say frivolous things" - runs so deep in our subconscious that it can transcend the boardroom and even enter our homes.
Uma describes her father as "the most progressive 70-year-old man I know".
Yet, since Uma got married, she has noticed a trend in their conversations.
"Now that my husband has come into our lives, I find that my dad actually thinks that he knows more than I do about anything. It is so frequent that sometimes even I find myself believing, for no good reason, that my husband's point of view is just ‘better’ than mine."
Uma has a theory why this is.
"I feel like it is the higher pitch of my voice that makes my dad discount what I am saying. Sometimes I find myself actually lowering the pitch of my voice to a more baritone-y sounding voice to see if it makes my dad listen to me more."
How many of us can relate to this? Resorting to voice modulation to get our own loved ones to listen to us? (I would be lying if I said I don't.)
"I would intentionally sound stupid to make my point"
We all have come up with our own coping mechanisms for these all-too-familiar patterns. Personally, I have tried and failed in meetings at raising my voice, raising my hand, trying to catch the boss's eye by staring like a creep, and aping catchphrases my male colleagues used. The last one worked particularly badly because I just cannot say things like "let’s touch base" with a straight face.
Pallavi, a new joinee at a family business, figured out her own strategy. She found significant chest-thumping on part of the men was typical of her new workplace.
"There was a lot of unnecessary bravado, and aggressive behaviour that I observed in the organization. It seemed to be a part of the culture itself."
Pallavi had to come up with a way to make sure that her voice would be heard in meetings, especially in an environment like this. She decided it was best to not make any sudden movements around the fragile male egos in the room.
"I started phrasing my opinions as questions to get heard. I would intentionally sound stupid to make my point. For example, if I found a big gap in their balance sheet or profit and loss statement, instead of saying, 'That is wrong.' I would say 'Why do we put it that way?' And in the process of answering my "stupid question" they would realize their mistake and figure out what they needed to do to correct it. Six months of this led to them making enormous changes, putting me in charge of reviews and making sure I was part of every boardroom meeting."
The Kali Ma incarnate
Cutting themselves down to fit a man's world is a strategy that works well for many women who have tried it. But what happens when a woman, who has become an expert at diminishing herself, is cornered into revealing her true colours of competence?
Prachi is usually quiet in meetings. For some reason, her colleagues assume that that means she doesn't know her job. They are all too happy to ignore her presence in meetings.
"I am the only woman in the team at my level. So when I walk into the office, I see people's eyes darting towards me for no reason. I try not to attract any further unwanted attention to myself and am quiet unless asked to speak. Other than basic pleasantries, I am usually a piece of furniture in the meeting hall."
Recently, however, there a conflict arose between Prachi's team and a much senior colleague's team. She decided she had to speak up.
"It was an emergency situation in which our teams were thrown into a position of conflict. The kneejerk reaction was to transfer blame to my team. However, I knew that my team had done nothing wrong. All facts and figures were on my fingertips and I took the senior head on."
Nobody expected the usually meek and demure Prachi to speak up and hold her own, that too against such a senior person in the organization.
"I spoke out loud and people were stunned. It has been many days and people are still talking about it with my boss behind my back. They say, 'This girl is Kali Mata. She is sweet only on the surface but we are afraid of crossing her now because if she took such a senior person to task, what would she do to us?'"
Moral of the story: A woman who is quiet is incompetent. A woman who speaks up is a fearsome terror. There is no middle ground available.
I did a lot of reading after I realized that being ignored at meetings, being talked over, being interrupted, and not being given credit for your ideas was a ubiquitous phenomenon among women and not unique to me. I came across this gem of an idea that I absolutely love.
Apparently, women in President Obama's team got together and found that they all felt this happening to them in the White House meetings. They came up with a brilliant solution - they started speaking up for each other in meetings.
For example, if Shreya and I are in a meeting and you got interrupted or spoken over, I'd jump in and say, "Hey guys, can we circle back to what Shreya just said? I think that was an interesting thought."
What I love about this idea is that it gives the mic back to women in meetings. It builds women up rather than expecting them to cut themselves down to fit in a man's world.
My only tweak to this genius idea would be - why should only women give the mic back to each other?
Decent-men-who-thought-I-was-surely-exaggerating, here is where you come in. Next time a woman speaks up in a meeting, pay attention. If she gets interrupted or ignored, use your wonderful manly man voice to pass the mic back to her.
I'll bet you it works.