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Published Date: July 6, 2023

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Creating Discussion Spaces Where Women Are Heard

Recently, I attended a meeting of pastors and academics that I thoroughly enjoyed. Though, not surprisingly, I was in the minority as a woman, I found the discussion interesting and the participants respectful.

The count was roughly three men to every one woman, and I don’t question the willingness of any of the men in the literal or virtual room to listen to the women present. Certainly, the three men leading the discussion welcomed our input.

Yet a dynamic played out that was all too familiar. Forty minutes of discussion went by before one woman (me) was able to insert herself into the conversation. Prior to that, the men in the room dominated the theological debate. For the entire hour and a half of talk, I made three observations, and the other women made none.

Why do these things happen, even in spaces that invite and welcome women? I believe it’s because most of us have never learned to lead a discussion that ensures equal participation, not simply faces at the table. Most of us think that all we have to do is toss some questions out and let others run with the ball. That, however, will never result in an even distribution of who catches and tosses that ball.

Research shows that when we don’t hear from everyone at the table, the entire group loses the benefits of insights, ideas, and opportunities that would have created a better environment for all. For instance, in the BYU study cited below, groups who had to make decisions unanimously were happier with their choices, noting the generous and insightful opinions provided by the women. Women were present in both discussions, but only in the groups forced to solicit their thoughts did participants come to more inclusive decisions that everyone preferred.

There is still a lingering bias that men have more to say or better contributions to make in areas of theology and church leadership. Publishers and conferences have long promoted male speakers and writers over their female counterparts. That’s who we have so often seen presented as the experts, so it’s what we know and have come to expect. Even caring, experienced leaders need to be on the lookout in order to overcome those biases to lead well. We all need help to have truly inclusive meetings and discussions.

So what are some best practices for including women in the conversation, literally?

First, inclusive conversation begins early.

  • Check the guest list. Obviously, if we aren’t inviting a diverse group of people to the discussion table, we won’t get diverse thoughts. Ensure women are on your invite list, preferably in equal numbers to men. Make the event easy for women (or men) who may require childcare to attend.
  • Send out an agenda. For many who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a discussion, knowing what will be discussed ahead of time helps with that discomfort. (This is definitely true of introverts like me.) On that agenda, ask attendees to choose something that really drives them for which they’d like to bring a discussion point. Ask people to come prepared to share, and then, when you reach each point on the agenda, call on the women who chose to have something prepared for it.
  • Lay out group rules. Send a list of the discussion rules (see below) with the agenda.
  • Choose a diversity of leaders. If all the leaders are men, they are statistically far more likely to give attention to other men. Putting a woman on the day’s leadership team will increase the likelihood that women will be noticed when they want to speak.

Second, some effort just before the meeting pays off.

  • Provide equal seating. Have enough chairs at the table, front row, for everyone. It’s difficult enough for a woman to speak up in a mixed meeting. The likelihood that she will do so from behind everyone else is exponentially smaller. Also, it helps women to speak up if leaders are seated among the group, not at the head. The perception that “we’re all equal participants together” adds comfort for reticent speakers.[1]
  • Know your participants. Greet everyone by name; make clear you value all of them being there and hope to hear their contributions.
  • Break the ice. Begin with one or two optional nonthreatening general questions (not cheesy ice-breaker questions) to get everyone talking with confidence. (What did you/your pastor preach on Sunday? What’s been feeding your soul this week? What’s been the best part of your week so far?)

Third, Follow some best practices during your meeting.

  • Post ground rules. Go over the ground rules before you start. A few crucial ones: 1) No interrupting. 2) Wait a few seconds after the last person has finished before jumping in. 3) Ask someone else what they think as often as you speak. 4) The leader may call on people, but no one is required to speak.
  • Have a no-tolerance stance on interruptions. Studies point to the fact that men interrupt women at far higher rates than they do other men.

According to a study from Princeton and BYU, “At a mixed table, men will dominate the conversation, taking up 75 percent of the conversation, and leaving just 25 percent of the talking to women.”[2] Interestingly, when forced to hear out the women, the study also found that the group’s conclusions changed for the better.  

At Stanford, researchers saw forty-eight interruptions in their male-female groupings, forty-six of them by the men. In general, research tells us that women are less comfortable speaking up in mixed meetings and are interrupted twice as often, especially in male-dominated fields (like the church).[3]

Knowing this helps the discussion facilitator to recognize when it’s happening and redirect with comments like, “Hey, Brad, I’d love to know what you think today, but first I want to hear Latasha finish her thought.”

Oh, and make sure you don’t interrupt anyone yourself. Your example is the best way to set the tone.

  • Similarly, don’t allow for “bropropriation.”[4] This is a phenomenon that’s happened to me countless times. A woman suggests an idea, she’s overlooked, and a man presents the same thought a few minutes later to general approbation. She gets no credit for her idea. If the leader hears this happen, she could ask, “Ashley, isn’t that similar to what you said a minute ago? Can you elaborate on what you think of Eric’s addition?”
  • Monitor and limit big talkers. Keep track of who’s been monopolizing conversation. Some men take up more time than they should in a meeting, and they probably don’t know it. I love what one facilitator suggests for serial talkers—hand them a dry-erase-marker to write ideas down. It ensures they will have to listen!
  • Ask people to participate. This can be intimidating, and not everyone will be comfortable speaking out. Some, however, are waiting and hoping to be called upon, as they feel unable to break into a continuous flow of conversation. Ask in a way that allows for a polite refusal. “Jen, do you have thoughts you’d like to share? Amira, do you agree with what Jeff just said? Jada, isn’t this something you listed as a special interest for you?”
  • Write it down. A great idea comes from Hilary Dubin—“When a big question arises, have the group take a few minutes to put their ideas on paper then go around and have everyone share. This gives less vocal participants time to gather their thoughts and ensures their voice will be heard.”[5]

Kathryn Heath calls this careful attention to inclusion “conducting” the discussion, like an orchestra.[6] Some people need to be beckoned in for their important sounds in the concerto; others need to be quieted, because the piece isn’t calling for trumpets right now. Altogether, you’re harmonizing a beautiful symphony.

As Dr. Laura J. Hunt observes, trust is the one element that ties all of these practices together. If leaders regularly talk about making room for everyone to contribute, if they regularly stop people who interrupt, if they regularly send out agendas so that everyone can come prepared for the discussion, if they encourage oversharers to listen more and tell quieter people how much their contributions are welcome, “it’s really all those things together. It’s building trust as a leader.”[7]

These ideas will benefit more than the women in your room. You’ll also make it easier for people of color, introverts, and neurodiverse participants to feel comfortable being heard in your meetings. It’s an all-around win for everyone.

Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent on Pexels.

[1] Samantha Rae Ayoub, “Inclusive meetings: A How-To- Guide for Managers,” Fellow.app, October 10, 2021, Inclusive meetings: A how-to guide for managers | Fellow.app

[2] “Study: Deciding by consensus can compensate for group gender imbalances,” BYU, September 17, 2012, https://news.byu.edu/news/study-deciding-consensus-can-compensate-group-gender-imbalances.

[3] “How often are women interrupted by men? Here’s what the research says,” AdvisoryBoard, March 18, 2023, https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2017/07/07/men-interrupting-women.

[4] Arin N. Reeves, “Yellow Paper Series: Mansplaining, Manterrupting, and Bropriating: Gender Bias and the Pervasive Interruption of Women,” NEXTONS, March 1, 2015, https://research.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/manterruptions-bropropriation-and-mansplaining-2-yellow-paper-series.pdf

[5] Hilary Dubin, “How to counteract 3 types of bias and run inclusive meetings,” Atlassian, January 1, 2019, https://www.atlassian.com/blog/teamwork/how-to-run-inclusive-meetings?fbclid=IwAR0YZlYqLmiKGJmdOCb8RYNIik_cuxISByhG3GOapd4HPh0I3pEv18Wvk8Q.

[6] Karthryn Heath and Brenda F. Wensil, “To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings,” Harvard Business Review, September 6, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/09/to-build-an-inclusive-culture-start-with-inclusive-meetings.

[7] This quote is from a conversation with Dr. Laura J. Hunt.

Related Resources

Video: Who’s Talking & Who’s Listening: Using Muted Group Theory to Enhance Interactions Between Churches and Marginalized Women
Women Leaders at the Table in Early Churches
Egalitarian in Profession; Complementarian in Practice