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Why Women Still Don’t Run the Company…or the Country!

A while back, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Pennsylvania Governor's Conference for Women, an annual event designed to enhance professional and personal growth. While there, I heard some startling facts about the participation of females in politics: Women hold less than one-quarter of the legislative seats in the fifty states.

Of course, women have made real progress politically, that is, the recent presidential and vice-presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, respectively;  and I'm fortunate to live in a state where both senators are women—California.  Yet, I can't help wondering why more women across the country don't step into the political spotlight. Men jump into campaigning for office without blinking, while women are still waiting for an invitation!

Although most of us have some degree of apprehension about taking center stage—no matter how extroverted we may be—for women this reluctance is often steeped in a history of expected behavior. Until recent times, we have been taught to stay quietly in the background: Don't be a showoff. Be a nice girl. Don't be loud. And definitely, don't upstage the guy next to you. As a communication and leadership coach, I frequently encounter this tendency women have to take a back seat and avoid publicizing themselves or their accomplishments; but it's hard to get elected or promoted if you can't toot your own horn!

Just as I wish there were more female names on my ballot, I am still waiting to see more women in the executive suites. I continue to be baffled by the under-representation of women in the corporate "C" jobs: CEO, CIO, and CFO. Numerous factors play into the disappointing male-female ratio with these "C" jobs and with holding political office.

According to senior-level women in a recent study by the research group Catalyst, stereotyping and preconceptions about their roles and abilities are what's holding them back most. As well, male decision makers at the top misinterpret the natural differences in communication styles between genders to mean that women lack confidence, strength, and assertiveness.

When it comes to demonstrating confidence and authority, women all too often start out at a disadvantage due to body language and vocal quality. One classic UCLA study measured the effect of verbal, vocal, and visual variables on message believability and found that audiences rated the importance of visual cues (body language and facial animation) at 55%, followed by vocals (tone, pace, pitch, speed, and volume) at 38%. Actual content weighed in as the least important factor at 7%.

Many participants at my women's leadership workshops begin their training as poster children for the UCLA research findings. With rounded shoulders and bodies slouched forward, they speak in hushed voices. In a misguided attempt to avoid offending anyone, they come across as humorless and seem to have left their personalities at home. Their voice inflection makes what they say sound like an appeal for validation rather than a statement of opinion or fact.

Following coaching, one woman was so improved that she actually contacted me and asked if I could show her how to come across as a little less powerful. Although her colleagues were impressed with her new confidence and assertiveness, she found it terrifying to be so "out there" for people to judge. We ended up laughing at the irony and absurdity of what she was requesting. She got over her fear of the spotlight and today is one of the top leaders in her field.

So as we begin a New Year, I offer the following tips for women who want to shed their reluctance to being "out there" in the corporate or political arena. And, who knows? When next election season rolls around, maybe your name will be on the ballot!

1. Know Thyself
First assess how you come across. Be scrupulously honest about evaluating your pluses and your deltas (things you need to improve or change). Take a good look at your body language. Think about the types of situations that make you nervous—and how they deleteriously manifest in your voice and body language—as well as the situations in which your best self shines through. Truly knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is the first step toward being able to comfortably step into the spotlight.

2. Get Over the Self-Promotion Myths That Hold You Back
For most women, talking about themselves is about as comfortable as having a root canal; but the truth is: if you don't self-promote you won't get promoted. To embrace self-promotion you need to dispel some common myths, including "A job well-done speaks for itself," "Good girls don't brag,"  "Humility gets you noticed," or "I don't have to talk about my accomplishments; others will do it for me."

3. Learn the Art of The BRAG
Most women think they have two choices when it comes to self-promotion: remaining obscure or sounding obnoxious, but there is actually an artful middle ground—a way of turning the spotlight on yourself without looking and feeling like a walking billboard. The secret is to describe yourself or your accomplishments with an interesting anecdote. Telling a short story is far more compelling than rattling off your accomplishments in laundry-list fashion. To figure out what makes you unique and memorable check out the "Take-12" Self-Evaluation Questionnaire at www.bragbetter.com

4. Focus on You
It doesn't always have to be we, we, we all the time, a concept that women find particularly natural in their role as nurturers. Of course you want to acknowledge the importance of teamwork but move on to say what you have learned and achieved from the work you've done. A great way to trick yourself out of feeling self-conscious is to pretend you're talking about your best friend instead of yourself.

5. It's All in the Delivery
When you've got good news to share, let it show in your voice. If you don't sound excited about your achievements, how can you expect others to be? And women, don't turn declarative statements into questions by raising your voice at the end of sentences. Make sure your voice isn't too soft, breathy, light, or high in pitch. Remember, you are a professional saying something with conviction and enthusiasm, not a young girl or Marilyn Monroe.

6. Accept the Praise
Many people, especially women, have a tendency to deflect compliments that come their way. Instead, smile, look the person in the eye, and say, "Thank you. Coming from you that means a lot." You'll be taking the person's compliment graciously while flattering him or her at the same time.

About the Author(s)

Peggy Klaus Communication Coach Peggy Klaus is president of Klaus & Associates (www.peggyklaus.com).  She is author of The Hard Truth About Soft Skills (HarperCollins, 2008) and BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It (Warner Books).