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Being heard as a woman in a room full of men: some practical advice

I was asked an interesting question at breakfast the other day by a colleague earlier in her career than I am: “How do you manage to be heard in a room that’s 95% men?” She’d recently had the exhausting experience of attending a tech conference with an appalling attendee gender balance, and she’d struggled to find a foothold in any conversation. My heart goes out to anyone who’s been in this situation before, including my younger self.

You know the drill: people are standing in a circle, elbow to elbow, chatting in an animated fashion. There may even be the odd guffaw. (Do men still slap each other on the back? Emotionally it certainly feels like that sometimes.) How do you join them?

I did my best to empathise and give a practical answer, but further reflection since means I have more to say than I managed on the spot. So here you are: my core principles and practical advice for being heard as a woman in a room full of men, based on hard-won experience.


  • Make them listen!
  • Do it like you

And the practical advice:

  1. It starts with self-belief: be certain of your value
  2. Take up physical space
  3. Listen carefully and leverage your responses
  4. Don’t compete with bad manners – be a good conversationalist instead
  5. Focus on connecting with one person first
  6. Prepare responses in advance for unpleasant situations
  7. Own and reclaim any criticism you get

First things first

All the following advice builds on top of these two principles:

Make them listen!

Ultimately have “making people hear you” as a clear goal. If you need to apply some force to achieve this then so be it, but force doesn’t have to be loud, just assertive – see below.

While changing the status quo can feel violent when you have to be the person doing it, insisting on being included is not violent or unreasonable, even if you have to be firm. Meekness is not a virtue and – while I’m sorry to say it so bluntly – so-called good manners (of the horrid “women should be seen and not heard” kind) get you nowhere in some of the more awful rooms. This is no longer about “manners” anyway, whether the broken kind or the real kind; because in a room that’s excluding you, everyone else’s manners are already terrible.

What follows is advice for how to actually do this, but I commit to you that clarity of purpose is the first step.

Do it like you

By “make them listen”, I’m not advocating for simply being louder, particularly if you’re naturally more reserved. I disagree with much of what I’ve seen advising women to speak louder, earlier and more often in order to be heard. For me, this is just a race to the bottom: you’re competing with men on their terms, which a) doesn’t often work, and b) will result in a louder room rather than a more inclusive one.

Don’t buy in to the fantasy that acting more “like a man” is better. Find a way to make who you are work for what you need.

Relatedly, some people will advise you to “dress for success”, but I again reject the premise here, because it implies that normal, natural you isn’t compatible with success. I prefer “dress to feel like you”.

You’re the one who has to gain a foothold in an unbalanced room, after all.

It starts with self-belief: be certain of your value

To get people to hear you, first you have to believe that you are worth hearing. True belief in yourself grows with time, thankfully, but while you’re on the way being clear on your “value proposition” can help: who am I, and what differentiates me from other people? How do I bring to bear the set of experiences I’ve had on day to day situations?

The big secret is that there are no unspoken eligibility criteria for joining this conversation or that. Being a human and wanting to connect with fellow humans is all it takes.

Regarding ad hoc techniques for increasing self-belief, if morning affirmations, or looking in the mirror and giving yourself a pep talk work for you, then do them; but focus on yourself and your value rather than on trying to change.

Take up physical space

Before you try to take up conversational space in a dreaded elbow-to-elbow circle of loud men, first take up physical space. Tapping someone on the elbow with a clear “Hi, I’m [Helen]” will usually do it. Step forward while they’re turning to you and hey presto, look who’s now in the circle.

If they don’t hear this first attempt, just repeat, but louder and tappier. You could also try an airy “I’d like to squeeze in please”. Few people will flatly ignore this, but if this happens to you, turn sideways, insert a forearm between two upper arms and literally push yourself in, like how you walk through a busy bar. Park any internal sense that this is ‘rude’ – it’s not, and honestly people so inattentive likely won’t even notice anyway!

Once you make it into the circle, make sure you don’t accidentally get boxed out again. Briefly greet the person to each side of you (quietly if someone else is mid-flow) so they know your presence is deliberate. If they’re somehow still ignoring you then fine, it no longer matters.

Body language time: stand firmly with your feet shoulder-width apart, and turn your face, torso and toes to be fully facing whoever is currently speaking. This is called ‘fronting’, and shows you’re paying attention, plus can make a person’s presence more compelling (just watch any video of politicians, chat show hosts, or other public speakers to see what I mean). If ‘fronting’ to the current speaker turns you out of the circle (for example if the circle is more of an oval) then take a small step back t/sideways/whatever so you don’t lose your space.

Don’t fiddle with anything you’re holding, or with your hair. Now is not the time to snack or sip your tea. Pay full attention to the speaker and what they’re saying.

You are now present, hurrah.

Listen carefully and leverage your responses

Now you’re firmly present in the circle, your next aim is to become part of the conversation before getting to speak, so when you do decide to speak there’s already space for you. You can use active listening to do this, employing both verbal and non-verbal responses to gain purchase.

While continuing to ‘front’ to whoever is speaking, focus on what they’re saying. Don’t just do a studied impression of listening! Really listen – this is key. Start small. Nod and smile where you agree, but don’t overdo the nodding (remember bobblehead toys?).

Tilting your head to one side during an interesting point helps the speaker feel heard. But use this sparingly otherwise you’ll look like a placidly intrigued pigeon.

You can then progress to vague noises of support, like “Mmm hmm”, “Ohhh I see”, and “Of course”.

By demonstrating your focus on the conversation you’re already starting to join it.

Don’t compete with bad manners – be a good conversationalist instead

Groups of people at conferences often fall into a silly pattern: when one person is speaking, instead of listening, the others are thinking about the point they want to make next. When one stops speaking (or in reality usually slightly before they finish), the next starts. This is not a conversation: this is a weird series of unsolicited and non-consensual lectures. Don’t join them – beat them by doing better!

While listening attentively (with body language to match), you may find you have something more than “Mmm hmmm” you’d like to contribute. If someone is being interesting, let them know with more active listening. You can immediately follow one of your “Ohh I see”s with a quick clarifying question: “Are you saying [reflect back part of what they just said]?”. Don’t be afraid to speak loud enough to make sure you’re heard.

The speaker is likely to respond to you in both voice and body language – it’s much easier to speak to someone who looks interested than a load of people you worry are ignoring you. Look, you’re now in a conversation! And it’s time to make a whole point of your own if you have one.

A side effect of this over a few minutes is that perceptive colleagues may start feeling more confident they’ll be listened to when they speak, which might help them interrupt less early, making more space for others in the conversation.

Focus on connecting with one person first

If the more ‘polite’ ways of joining a conversation above haven’t worked, it’s time to divide and conquer.

Look at the circle and try to gauge which man feels the least socially powerful. Maybe he’s struggling to be heard too. When you’ve spotted him, your new goal is to build a one-to-one connection with him. Becoming allies will help both of you. (I’m saying “man” here, because a woman would probably have already welcomed you. Sorry not sorry.)

If you’re standing at all near him, then great. If not, consider ducking out of the circle – you can mutter something about an urgent need for another biscuit if you need to – then rejoin a couple of places away. Standing directly next to him risks you both being de-circled by your louder colleagues.

Make eye contact (if you look at someone they’ll usually look back pretty soon), flash a bright smile and, if no one else is currently speaking, briefly introduce yourself. Say something light-hearted (how about biscuit-related?) to get a quick smile in return.

Or if someone else is speaking, don’t start a sub-conversation, but still try to establish a connection, ideally with some humour – maybe wave your new biscuit approvingly? Make a very short, quiet comment in a gap on what’s just been said, mainly aimed at him. If there are no such gaps, you can even try “Lovely that everyone is so passionate, right?” if you’re feeling brave. When you get your smile – and you will – you’ve now got an ally.

If he attempts to speak to the group at large, turn your active listening up to 11. I’ve written before: everyone is interesting, and it’s your job to notice how – so find him interesting and let him know. Don’t fake this interest: you’ll feel weird, but more practically it doesn’t work.

Consider slightly more emphatic smiling and nodding (but no bobbleheads) and more interested head-tilting (but no pigeons); make your verbal encouragements a little louder; try some clarifying questions or ask for further ideas; and soon he’s likely to respond with more eye contact and addressing his comments to you.

Then when you next attempt to make a point or ask a question yourself, fully ‘front’ to your new ally. Perhaps direct the end of what you’re saying to him, and ask him a question based on the quick introduction you previously got or what he recently contributed?

How to quickly build rapport in a conversation is outside the scope of this article, but is certainly a skill worth learning.

However you create your ally, you’ll now be taking up more space together, both physically and socially. It won’t be long before the two of you have successfully let each other in to the wider conversation.

Prepare responses in advance for unpleasant situations

Once you’ve found a way to speak in a gender-unbalanced group, unfortunately you still might end up having problems like being interrupted, being corrected when you’re not wrong, or someone repeating what you just said as their own point. Sadly this list of troubles isn’t exhaustive.

I find it helpful to prepare a toolkit of responses in advance, so I don’t have to conjure up how to deal with bad behaviour on the spot.

  • Being interrupted
    • Sometimes I allow the interruption, then say something like “I hadn’t finished what I was saying” or “I’d like to finish my question, thanks” before beginning again from my interrupted sentence
    • You could refuse to allow the interruption by continuing to speak, but slower and with more inflection – don’t just speak louder – don’t meet violence with violence
    • Saying “Just a minute please” also disallows an attempt at interruption
    • If I’m feeling breezy, I might furrow my brow comically, then widen my eyes and flash a half-smile at an ally, and say “Err, okay then” to acknowledge what just happened
  • Someone repeating what you just said as their own point
    • Try smiling brightly at an ally, pointing at the now-speaker, and saying “Pretty sure I just said that?!”
    • Or you could ask the now-speaker “Are you disagreeing with what I said?”
  • Being corrected incorrectly / having your expertise questioned by an overconfident person with mediocre understanding
    • Don’t meet a factual disagreement with more facts if the reason you’ve been corrected is based on your social power rather than on being incorrect – this approach already hasn’t worked
    • I try to disarm the corrector with friendly but precise questions to isolate the level of the disagreement if there is one, or show that there isn’t if there isn’t: “Are you saying [slight extension to their point in the direction of sanity]”, “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. Is that different to [summary of small correct thing]”?
    • If all else fails, I’ve said “I’d love to discuss this further – could I email you a paper I published on this then grab coffee together later?”, but this is the nuclear option!

Own and reclaim any criticism you get

Once you succeed at joining a conversation, you may be rewarded by the bewilderment of men. This is a marker of success, so wear it with pride.

Here are some things I’ve been told by men I didn’t previously know at tech conferences:

  • “You’re a brazen thing, aren’t you” (an informatics conference)
  • “Gosh, you’re direct” (a hackathon)
  • “Ahhh I get it now. You’re a troublemaker through and through aren’t you. You’re a disruptor, so you’re disruptive.” (a tech in medical education conference)

If I’m being kind to him, the last of these examples was sort-of intended as a compliment (from a fairly public figure too, of course a white man 30 years older than me), but the others were definitely not.

Alongside visible and bristling incredulity at their nerve, I responded to the first of these by adding “I was once called brazen and I liked it” to my Twitter profile.

And a horrible one: in a Discourse forum for a tech community I used to be part of, someone (yet another white man with 30 years on me) once set my automagical post flair to “Cheeky Young Upstart”. This was absolutely not a compliment – it was intended to minimise and dismiss. I added this as a line to my Discourse profile “About me” section and brought up the insult with glee in conversation with his colleagues for ever more.

If a stranger feels the need to criticise you, particularly if you’re a woman in a room full of men, interpret that as them adjusting to a new reality where they don’t get to consume all the air in the room. Then help others reach the same enlightenment sooner by owning your labels!

This is my high-level advice for being heard as a woman in a room full of men. I’d love to hear yours. And if you see me out and about, let’s make space for each other…and everyone else, so no one needs this advice!