Online meetings: how to hold the room and stop men taking over

Because there are only so many times you can switch off the camera so they can’t see you silently screaming. Here are five bullet-proof ways a business consultant and leadership coach deals with mansplainers

How are those online meetings going? A study by Sage Journals reveals, in meetings, men tend to speak more often and dominate conversation – and virtual team meetings are even worse.

‘Prior to Covid-19 we were making a shift to women and men achieving a 50/50 balance in the room in terms of how we’re heard and how we come across. Now, we’re working from home online meetings are a daily event and we’re going back a step,’ says Emma Mills-Sheffield, a business consultant and leadership coach. And, oh man, Mills-Sheffield should know. She’s worked in mainly male-dominated environments and now helps people increase their personal impact and make the most of change.

While there are of course exceptions, Mills-Sheffield says men are typically a little bit bolder, more argumentative even. Online meetings make it really hard to interject with the subtleties of body language when they chip into a meeting. If not prevented from doing so, some will disappear in a cloud of their own self-importance, meaning others can’t get a word in. According to a study, women experience the act of mansplaining six times a week at work.

online meetings
Emma Mills-Sheffield is a business consultant and leadership coach

So what’s to be done about this slide in gender equality? As women we may feel disinclined to take up more space than necessary and tend to focus on being succinct – and likeable. But if you’re running a meeting you need to take control. Here’s Mills-Sheffield’s five-point action plan on how to make sure you’re holding the online room and getting your point across.

Online meetings: 5 strategies for success

  1. Show up meaning business
    While the last few months of WFH have been a great leveller and we’re used to dogs and kids running into view as we work from kitchen table, if you want to be taken seriously, treat the online room as no different from a physical one. ‘That little square on the screen tends to get judged very critically, especially as we’re missing the usual body language cues. So it’s important that what can be seen sets the right tone. This means wearing something presentable – and no mess in the background. Take away all distractions and make sure people focus on you,’ says Mills-Sheffield.
  2. Plan your meeting
    Be clear about the outcomes of the meeting, sending out the agenda in advance. ‘Make it simple and clear and allow time for discussion. It’s hard to facilitate a really packed agenda as well as ensuring you’re getting all the delegates involved. So put time blocks against each item,’ says Mills-Sheffield. The great thing about digital meetings is you can put your notes right next to the screen and glance over very naturally when you need to. ‘This means you can ensure the points you particularly want to make are not forgotten.’
  3. Assert yourself from the outset
    ‘Smile confidently when you introduce yourself, asserting your position in the meeting. Make sure you allow time for introductions, working your way round the screen and saying ‘So and so, we would love to hear from you – tell us what you’re currently working on’. This way everyone has a clear view of the group, it’s an equal platform and no one’s waiting half an hour to pipe up the meeting.’

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‘Ah, that put those mansplainers in their place’ (Getty Images)

  1. Be a bit bossy
    It can be tricky to move people along if they start to dominate the meeting, short of muting them. You can’t use hands or body language as you normally might to cut into their rhetoric. ‘So be firm. If someone starts rambling, wait until they draw breath and then firmly say ‘Thank you, I really appreciate your input, perhaps we can take this offline later – but right now it’s time to move on’. Remember, they’re attending your meeting.’

And if people in the group can’t get a word in edge-ways? ‘As a good facilitator it’s up to you to hold back those who are overpowering and give an opportunity to those that can’t speak up. Encourage use of the ‘raise your hand’ icons and chat box, so you can bring them into the conversation.’ Establish by the end of the meeting what everyone’s agreed to, or record it and send minutes the next day.

  1. Build in time for chat
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Sometimes meetings can be dominated by people talking about personal stuff. ‘Don’t forget we’re missing these usual opportunities – the time it takes to walk into a meeting, to exchange a few words before it starts. If people haven’t had the chance to connect for a while, let them know the online session starts 15 minutes early to allow time for a catch up. Delegates can choose to dial in early or just turn up for the meeting section.’

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