As some of you know, a couple of months ago I was appointed to our company’s senior management committee, the first woman to sit on it, ever. It’s a fairly big deal, and I was delighted. A week later I attended my first meeting.
We were discussing a major project which our company is involved in, and I had a question about it. A gap arose in the conversation, and I started to ask my question. I got about two words out of my mouth before a male colleague started to speak, raised his voice and simply talked over me, with no acknowledgement at all of the fact that I was speaking. I waited until he’d finished and started to ask my question again. Again, I got about two words out and it happened again, same thing, different colleague. Again I waited for a pause, again I started to ask my question and again I was interrupted and talked down. At no point was there any acknowledgement from any of the men around the table that I’d been interrupted, except for the third time, when a colleague sitting next to me caught my eye and raised his eyebrows.
After this the colleague who is leading the project started to speak about it. He spoke, uninterrupted, for about three or four minutes, setting out his vision for it. Eventually there was a pause and I started to ask my question. He interrupted me, saying that he hadn’t finished. I remonstrated that I had a question which I had tried to ask three times and which was relevant to the project. At this point my boss, who is divisional CEO and chair of the meeting, stepped in and told me that I shouldn’t interrupt my colleague and that I could ask my question when he had finished. My colleague duly spoke for another three or four minutes, following which my boss said something along the lines of “And now, Barbara, you may ask your question.”
The question isn’t important here; what is important is the dynamic of what was going on under the surface. In the meeting, I felt like a fool for a few minutes and then resolved to speak up again before the end of the meeting, which I did. I thought about it afterwards, decided that it hadn’t been about me (or rather, that it had, but not about me as an individual) and that on the whole it was a good thing as it had shown that I would make my voice heard in that forum, however difficult it might be.
Last week we had a in-house seminar given by an external firm. A large number of people attended including my boss, who was sitting behind me. After the first presentation, there were questions; I had one and during a suitable pause I started to ask it. I got about three or four words out (as far as I can remember they were “Do you think that”), the gentleman taking the questions was looking at me and listening, and it happened again. My boss cut in, started speaking over me and carried on whilst I shut up. When his question had been answered, I asked my question, to which the response was “Ooh, that’s a good question”, followed by a debate amongst the three presenters on the point I’d raised. What I’m saying here is that it wasn’t a stupid or irrelevant question, but then, of course what was going on was nothing to do with that.
I will continue on this topic tomorrow.