Women's HIstory Month: Finding Your Voice in Professional Spaces by Cindy MacKenzie

Women’s History Month: Finding Your Voice in Professional Spaces

By Cindy McKenzie

Studies have found that one challenge that many career women face is the ability to find their voice in meetings. This is an issue that can manifest itself at different times in their careers; in looking for their first job, navigating their first position, to sitting in the executive suite. Finding your voice and confidently expressing opinions is a key component for career success and is a skill women need to address early and throughout their careers.  It is not enough to merely occupy a role or sit at the table. Women need to actively participate in meetings and share their perspectives to be perceived as integral members of the team, thereby positively impacting the initiatives they are involved in and ultimately contributing to the success of the companies where they work.

Often the reason for women not finding their voice is due to lack of confidence, imposter syndrome and fear of rejection. I have collaborated with numerous young women in college through my work with STEM Advantage. Some individuals feel so uncomfortable talking about themselves that, even when asked, they cannot articulate why they enrolled in a STEM major or what they aim to do upon graduation. If these women do not develop their confidence and communication skills during college, it could seriously hinder their job prospects. STEM Advantage takes special care to pair students with mentors who can focus on building their confidence and communication abilities. They are provided with opportunities to network with professionals, practice interviewing, and develop the ability to present themselves effectively during interviews. Their internships further strengthen these skills by allowing them to gain experience in a professional work environment. One participant in the program who comes to mind was an intern at my company. When she started, she was very shy and rarely talked in meetings. By the end of the two years interning, she was well-spoken, confident and at graduation had multiple offers. She later spoke at the STEM Advantage gala about the experiences that she had that allowed her to gain the confidence to own her voice.  It was truly inspiring to watch her become such a confident person.

For me, the issue manifested when I became a CIO for the first time. The company I was at had a senior leadership team that weighed in on all major decisions; from business strategy, to product focus, to acquisitions and divestitures.  During my first few months in the role, I spoke from the perspective of the CIO only, discussing the impact on technology of business decisions, until I realized that they expected me to weigh in on the business side of the discussion as well. When I began voicing my opinion on major decisions across the business is when I felt the shift in perception regarding my contribution. By the end of my time as CIO at this organization, I was leading or co-leading major initiatives that had almost no technology impact, because the CEO believed I was the best person for the role.  

Learning to own one’s voice is not always easy—it requires self-awareness, courage, and strategic approaches. Some strategies and tips for women who want to learn to own their voice:

  • Come to meetings prepared so you are well versed in the topics being discussed
  • Listen to people who you think are effective in voicing their opinions in meetings and determine what they are doing that makes them effective
  • Voice your opinion, even if you are scared; you will get more comfortable with practice
  • Talk to your boss and/or a trusted colleague after a meeting and get feedback on how effective you were in communicating your perspective
  • Find an ally who will support you in meetings
  • Resist being defensive if your points are challenged, just answer professionally in a neutral tone
  • Don’t apologize when expressing your opinion
  • Join professional groups inside and outside of work to hone your networking and communication skills

Strategies and tips for managers in helping a team member to learn to own their voice:

  • Lead with empathy and be a supportive manager
  • Directly ask a person who is not participating in a meeting for their input
  • Give coaching and feedback to team members on the effectiveness of their communication immediately after the meeting 
  • Make sure differing opinions are heard and valued in the meetings you attend

Women’s voices are often silenced or marginalized in most parts of the world, and it’s crucial women step into their power and own their voices. I have seen the number of women CIOs increase significantly during my career, but to reach gender parity we need to continue to invest in preparing women to be the next generation of leaders. STEM Advantage and similar organizations help address this issue by empowering women to confidently express themselves, enabling them to effect change, inspire others, and shape their own destinies.  Learn more at stemadvantage.org