The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can women be taken seriously in a room full of men?” is written by Teesha Murphy, creative director at Tyler Barnett PR.
When I first entered the public relations world, I would find myself incredibly intimidated when presented with a conference room full of men. I felt they were looking at me like I was a little girl, rather than a colleague. Despite my professional appearance, I had the strangest intuition I was being seen more as a bright-eyed teenager in a sundress than a respected executive. They’d go around shaking one another’s hands, and when they finally came to me, their hands dropped to their sides. Sometimes, I would get a wave or a quiet nod of their head in acknowledgement.
Eye contact was always the next major indicator I was in trouble. The male executives would speak as if I weren’t in the room, making it increasingly difficult for me to inject myself into the conversation. Of course, there were those times when a crude or profane comment was uttered, and then they might (finally) look my way and say something like, “Oops, I apologize.”
This was never a good thing. It meant the men in the room were made just as uncomfortable by me as I was by them. They felt censored and burdened. As a creative director, I know there are no two sensations more detrimental to a brainstorm or pitch meeting.
Nonetheless, after several occurrences of this, I had a minor, yet important epiphany: My female presence carried some serious power. By simply being the sole woman in a room full of men, I had the ability to change the entire atmosphere. Sure, in the current state it was working against me. But if I channeled this power properly, I could probably make a significant impact.
There are two things a woman should never attend a meeting without: Her confidence and a killer sense of humor. In my experience, there is no faster way to win the praise and respect of a room full of men. When they avoid shaking your hand, you shake theirs.
I remember the first time I did this. I held my hand out in front of a well-known CEO of a massive corporation, winked, and said, “You forgot me.” He instantly smiled and warmly shook my hand. “How embarrassing of me,” he responded.
This seemingly simple gesture changed the tone of the entire meeting. From there, eye contact was a breeze, which in turn allowed me to more easily voice my ideas and opinions. The next time a man leaned over to me and apologized for uttering a profanity, I ensured him and everyone else in the room that I required no special treatment due to my gender. If that guy can handle it, I sure can as well.
Once, a feeling of comfort and respect has been established, a woman is only limited by the quality of her work—and this is exactly how it should be. Sure, we’re still far from a woman being able to waltz into a room full of men without having to “earn” her spot. But I believe as more women strive and ascend to high-powered positions, this need will eventually diminish. Until then, we must become aware of our inherent power and use it to our advantage.