Let the women speak feature

Let the Women Speak

We have a new Prime Minister – the third UK female prime minister. Some will love her, others will hate her, but it it’s another step forward for equality of opportunity in the UK.

 Let the Women Speak That said, and despite the recent diversity on UK front benches, we are still missing out on hearing the voices of women in public life. So many women of substance, not just here but worldwide, hold back because they are surprisingly under-confident.

I recently trained a 30-something woman, online from Tokyo.

‘Is English your first or second language?’ I asked. I couldn’t tell.

‘It’s my fourth’ she replied. Without giving too much away, this woman is an authority on hydrogen power and also on the challenges of greening the global steel industry. She has a job with a clear purpose, to help ensure the international community tackles the climate crisis.

Why was I training her? Because she was an underconfident speaker! A woman with so much to offer, so many reasons to call herself an expert, nevertheless felt somehow not good enough.

I do not consider myself a card-carrying feminist, but this impressive woman is not alone. I regularly train amazing women who are, nevertheless, self-conscious or underconfident about their ability to communicate publicly.

Over the last 20 years I have run hundreds of media and presentation training sessions with the United Nations and I can remember literally dozens of amazing women, from many countries, that were similarly drop-dead impressive but underconfident about speaking publicly. I remember an extraordinary woman from Djibouti – I can picture her now – who was in a very senior public role and much loved by her colleagues, but who was underconfident about speaking in public. I remember an Indian woman who I predicted could be Prime Minister one day if only she could start to enjoy the limelight. In the Middle East there were an impressive number of capable, educated and informed women, who rarely spoke in meetings.

I could go on. I have found similarly impressive women, from very diverse backgrounds,  in investment banking, legal firms and above all not-for-profit think-tanks; all of whom have so much to say and so much to give, but hold themselves back.

A lot of these women are painfully self-conscious about the way they look. They worry about their hair (up or down? parted left or right?) they touch their faces, they use all sorts of body language that communicates subservience or discomfort. These things can typically be easily tackled with a couple of hours of coaching and a video camera, but it is sad and puzzling that it is necessary.

Of course, there are amazing men similarly afflicted with nerves but with 20 years of corporate training behind me, I can tell you I come across them less often.

I am not alone in noticing this. Dana Rubin, a US speaking coach, is doing a great job on LinkedIn reminding us of impressive women speakers from the past with her Speaking While Female Speech Bank. And I recently came across this article from Mette Johansson, another corporate coach who has a lot of experience in Asia, and who set up an Asian Women’s Speakers Bureau. Both campaign to encourage more women speakers on industry panels.

In the UK there are plenty of impressive women on TikTok telling us how to do our make-up but not nearly enough telling us how to build a fairer more inclusive society, or tackle climate change.

When women reach their potential, everyone benefits. This is now beginning to be understood. By the end of the century, I predict it will be as obvious as the idea that diversity brings better decision making. [If this idea is new to you Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift is an easy-to-read introduction].

Few speakers, women or men, look or sound perfect, certainly not at the start of their career. The UK’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, has herself acknowledged presentation is not always her strong point. But she hasn’t let it stop her.

My question is, how can we help more young women feel confident enough to speak out?

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