Have you ever sat silently as a coworker talked for 47 of the 50 minutes allotted for a meeting? Have you mentioned an idea only to be ignored or have someone else say it later and get credit? It can be frustrating and disheartening to feel like your voice isn’t heard in the workplace.
And when you’re a woman or minority, speaking up at work can be especially difficult. You might feel like you can’t get a word in edgewise or your ideas and feelings won’t be taken seriously. Or maybe you fear you’d be perpetuating a negative stereotype about a minority group or multiple minority groups you belong to.
Unfortunately, these fears aren’t unwarranted: Research shows that women speak less than men in the workplace, despite the perception they speak more, for example, and that women in leadership positions face negative consequences for being more talkative. So what can you do?
Above all else, “Trust your voice,” says Latesha Byrd, a career and talent development consultant and founder of Career Chasers, a virtual coaching experience for ambitious women of color who want to land their dream jobs and create careers they love. And remember that you have a right to be heard.
To be clear: It’s not your fault that your voice isn’t being heard at work. It isn’t the responsibility of marginalized people to drive societal change or fix the biases of groups with power. This article is about what you can do as an individual to help get your ideas and opinions across and your accomplishments recognized despite those biases and inequities.
Why Are Women and Minorities Less Heard at Work?
Society primes us to think that white men’s presence in an office is the default because, for a long time, it was. Employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and other characteristics only became illegal half a century ago with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So the biases and prejudices in favor of white men and against women and minorities are baked into our work culture.
As a result, women and minorities may be left out of important conversations. Even when people don’t consciously try to exclude members of minority groups, they are more likely to include colleagues most similar to themselves. And when women and minorities do get “in the room,” there are still “dozens of small, hurtful acts—from not calling on women from all ethnicities and races in meetings to cutting them off while they are speaking—that lead to a culture of exclusion,” says Serena Fong, Vice President of Strategic Engagement at Catalyst, who is an expert in building sustainable, diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
Women of color in particular face barriers to being heard in the workplace “because society at large and some workplace cultures do not value or respect their contributions or perspectives,” Fong says. Plus, she adds, they may feel they have to “constantly be ‘on guard’ to prepare for potential discrimination or bias.”
Gender, race, and other biases can also affect how women and minorities perceive themselves, says Eloise Eonnet, Muse career coach and founder of Eloquence, which provides workplace communication training. After being consistently excluded, ignored, or dismissed, they may start to lose confidence in themselves—making them afraid to speak up when they do have the chance or causing them to put other people’s voices before their own. And this creates a terrible, self-perpetuating cycle, Byrd says.
Tips to Make Your Voice Heard in the Workplace—No Matter What the Situation
Before we get into advice for specific scenarios, here are some general tips for being heard in the workplace that apply across the board. For all of them, take into account your specific situation and where you work.
Learn to Let Go of Being Liked
When you speak up in the workplace, especially as a woman in a male-dominated department or company, there’s a chance that people will think that you’re not “likable” or agreeable. But “just because you’re liked doesn’t mean that you’re respected,” Byrd says. Women often have a need to be liked, but it’s not going to help you progress in your career or reach your goals if it comes at the expense of sharing your thoughts and opinions.
Know Exactly What You’re Going to Say and When
Whenever possible, plan what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it ahead of time. Then, rehearse. Speaking your message out loud will help you solidify the words you want to use, and will help you have the confidence to say it out loud again when it counts, Eonnet explains. If you know that what you want to say might get some pushback, prepare for that as well, Byrd says. Think about the likely objections and be ready to respond.
Then, think about the best time to say what you want. Does one of your weekly meetings always have time set aside for people to bring up anything on their minds? Would you prefer to schedule a one-on-one meeting with someone you find easy to talk to?
Think About Your Language
Cut out filtering language and state things plainly, Byrd says. Instead of “I think” or “I feel like,” jump right to your point. Filtering is an automatic reflex to soften what you’re saying, but it can also make you sound less confident. Also do your best to remove filler words such as “like” and “um,” Eonnet says. The more concise your message, the less time you need to hold people’s attention to get your voice heard.
Consider Your Delivery
“Ninety percent of how you are heard is not what you say but how you say it,” Eonnet says. Your physical actions—eye contact, gestures, posture, etc.—and vocal elements such as volume, tone, pacing, and speed affect how people hear your message. For example, if you say something too quietly or with an unsure tone, you might sound like you’re asking for permission, not demanding to be heard. If you’re not sure how you come across, record yourself and play it back, paying attention to each aspect of your delivery, Eonnet says.
Build Strategic Relationships
If there’s a colleague whose input and opinions are always respected and who you’re comfortable sharing your ideas with, it’s worth getting to know them better so they’ll have your back, Byrd says. This could be an ongoing sponsorship-type relationship, or you could ask for support in specific situations, like during meetings or presentations, where you know it’s often difficult for you to be heard.
Look for Places Outside of Work to Build Confidence
It’s also important to find environments outside of work that are supportive, Byrd says. There are groups specifically for helping women and minorities gain confidence in the workplace like Byrd’s Career Chasers, or you might consider working with a career coach one-on-one or looking for other opportunities to practice communication skills and build confidence. Just be aware it’s a process: “Confidence doesn’t come overnight,” Byrd says.
Tips for Making Your Voice Heard in Specific Situations
Here are a few tips for common scenarios where it might be difficult to speak up or be listened to:
1. When You’re in a Meeting
Meetings can be especially difficult. You might feel that one or a few people are monopolizing the time to such an extent that you don’t even know when you’d speak, let alone how. Plus, research shows women are more likely to be interrupted than men.
If you know ahead of time that you have something to say, try contacting the meeting organizer to get yourself on the agenda. This will give you dedicated time to share. When you’re responding to something that happens during the meeting, remember to pay attention to your language and delivery. If you have a moment to jot down the key points you want to hit while others are talking, that can help organize your thoughts into as clear and concise a message as possible.
If someone interrupts you, don’t yield the floor. Say something like, “I was almost done making my point,” Byrd says, and continue talking. If the interruptions persist, you might say something more forceful. (For an example, think of Vice President Kamala Harris’ line to Mike Pence during the 2020 vice presidential debate: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”)
Video meetings can introduce additional obstacles given how hard it is to read people's body language and how interruptions literally cut off others' microphones. Take advantage of the chat and hand raise features when you want to say something but can’t seem to claim that large “speaker” box on Zoom. Hopefully, others in the meeting will notice and allow you space.
2. When You Have an Idea
If you have an idea you’d like to share, follow these steps:
- Lay out what your idea is and why it matters. Make sure you’re clear on what exactly you’re proposing, why it’s important, and how it’s going to impact the team or company. Is it a small change to a process or an idea for a large campaign? Will it cost money? What’s the ideal outcome?
- Do your homework. Back your idea up with evidence, data, and other research whenever possible. You need to know not only why this idea is important, but why it will work.
- Decide how you’ll present your idea. Once you understand the end goal, you can reverse engineer the best way to introduce your idea, Byrd says. Who would need to approve it? Should you get buy-in from a manager or certain colleague first or can it be brought to the team as a whole right away? Can it be brought up in a regularly scheduled meeting, would it need its own meeting with one or more stakeholders, or is it best communicated through text or visuals?
3. When You Want Your Accomplishments Noticed
“People like to say ‘Let your work speak for itself,’ but it can’t speak,” Byrd says. You need to talk about it.
Create a “brag sheet,” Byrd says. Every week, update your running list of what you’re doing well, along with the numbers and anything else that backs it up. Then, chat about it whenever the opportunity arises—with your managers, teammates, and even coworkers in different departments who you run into at the coffee machine. When someone asks how it’s going or what you’re working on—have an answer that shows off your best recent work.
Bragging might be especially difficult for women and minorities because of the way we’ve been socialized. However, there’s an art to it, Byrd says. If you frame your accomplishments in a way that shows how you’re helping the team or company (without erasing yourself!), then it feels less like you’re saying something just to toot your own horn, and more like you’re so excited about it you just had to share.
If you’re meeting with your boss specifically to review your accomplishments, decide ahead of time what your goals are, Eonnet says. Do you want a raise? More responsibility? Are you sharing your accomplishments incrementally to set yourself up to ask for a promotion further down the line? Do you want your manager to know that you took care of something independently and they can be less hands-on in the future? Do you want this win to lead to more work like what you just did? “Be objective-oriented,” Eonnet says, and be ready to back up your achievements in a measurable way.
4. When You Want to Give Feedback or Suggestions
Working on a team often means giving feedback on others’ work—for example, on a presentation they’re going to give at a company-wide meeting or designs for a new marketing campaign. Some people might not be receptive to constructive criticism, and when you’re a woman or member of a minority group, the possibility of being dismissed is even higher.
The best way to have your feedback taken seriously is to state it clearly and concisely, focusing on the person’s work product, not their work style or who they are. Back up your feedback with evidence and examples, and give concrete suggestions for improvement when applicable. When feedback is vague or broad, it’s easier to ignore.
Decide on the best way to deliver the feedback based on the situation. For instance, if you think the person will get defensive or feel “called out” in front of a group, consider having a one-on-one conversation.
5. When You're Calling Out Bad Behavior
When you have something to say about a person’s behavior, things get trickier. But as long as what they did isn’t particularly egregious, it’s “important to tackle the problem, not the person,” Byrd says.
Having examples of the behavior is very important here: “‘You seem this way,’ doesn’t mean anything,” Byrd says. Lay out what they said or what happened, how it made you feel, and what you want to happen next or in the future. You might say something like: “When you were talking to [Department Head], you said that you’d analyzed the data set on your own even though I stayed late last week to help you get that done. It made me feel like you were taking credit for my work, and I’d like for you to make sure you mention my contributions in the future.” In your first conversation, at least, you should assume the person has positive intent, Byrd says. Some people don’t have enough self-awareness or are not used to being challenged or having their behavior questioned.
Choose the medium of communication you feel comfortable with. For example, you might pull someone aside privately after a meeting where they spoke over you or made a comment that (possibly inadvertently) perpetuated a negative stereotype, Byrd says. While written feedback can be misconstrued without tone and other cues, Eonnet says, you may feel more comfortable writing an email depending on the situation and your position at the company. Whether you share face-to-face or in writing, you can bring or copy in a neutral third party, such as a trusted manager or member of the HR team.
6. When You Want to Elevate Others
Beyond making your own voice heard, you can also help others—whether or not you’re part of a marginalized group. “If you see a colleague being ignored or is trying to speak, say something. If you learn about an act of bias, think about how you can address it. It may not seem like much, but it is infinitely better than ignoring it,” Fong says. “We’re all accountable for doing the hard work, taking risks, getting uncomfortable, and speaking up in ways big and small if we want true equity in the workplace.”
Consider that if you’re part of one historically marginalized group, you still might have more social power than others in a given situation. For example, if you’re a white woman in a mixed-gender group, but there’s only one Black woman in the room, you can use your position of relative privilege to help lift her up.
If someone is trying to speak or being interrupted in a conversation or meeting, you can say something like, “One second, Mike, I think you cut Mei off,” or “What were you saying about [X], Carlos?” If you notice folks in the room ignoring someone’s comment or a colleague jumping in to make the idea their own, you might try amplifying the original speaker, repeating what they said and giving them credit for it.
You can also approach the coworker you’d like to help elevate privately. See if they want your help and have them explain what message they want help sharing—so you’re elevating their voice. Then, “become their megaphone,” Eonnet says.
The above tips can help your voice be heard, but if you’re consistently being ignored or—subtly or overtly—discriminated against, know that you’re worth more, Byrd says. “Don’t continue to subject yourself to this kind of treatment.” You don’t have to work in toxic environments where you feel emotionally or physically unsafe. “That’s not ‘just how it is’ or how it has to be to make ends meet,” Byrd says. There are companies and teams that will value you and your voice, and sometimes the best option for you professionally and personally is to find one of them.