How women can communicate effectively in the boardroom and beyond

In 2016, StatsCan reported that women held 19.4% of the positions on boards of directors across public, private and governmental organizations in Canada.[1] Though the diversity and inclusion movement is gaining steam, it’s still safe to say that effective communication skills are essential for women who work in this professional and typically male-dominated environment. Today, I want to talk to you about why communication matters, common communication mistakes women make in the boardroom and how to fix them.

Why effective communication is important in the board room

Being on a board of directors comes with big responsibilities. Each board member is expected to use and share their knowledge and experience to help the organization meet its objectives. That’s why it’s so important to be able to communicate well with other members of the board. The board chose you for a reason and communicating well helps you steer the ship in the right direction.

Why men are (sometimes) heard more than women

One theme that comes up when I coach my clients on communicating in male-dominated environments is how easily men are “heard” by others. Not only that, but their statements often remain unquestioned!

A lot of this can be tracked back to confidence, conviction and authority. Men tend to sound sure of themselves when they talk and their confidence gives the audience confidence, whether it’s deserved or not. When you’re in a male-dominated workplace, you can keep things in perspective by remembering that men and women are different, and they typically have different communication styles.

Communication success often means adapting your methods so you can excel in your current situation and be heard—the same as the men are.

Communication challenges women face in the boardroom—and how to solve them

In my three decades as an executive—and often the lone woman at the table—I’ve seen every communication issue you can imagine. Here are some of the most common communication issues I help my clients navigate.  

Communication challenge: Women are perceived as non-participatory

Women often sit back and analyze a situation before sharing their thoughts with the group. But in a male-dominated professional scenario, this can be perceived as not participating. Men’s participation often leans towards the boisterous side so quieter participation might not even register. This leads to misunderstandings where women think, “These guys just don’t get it,” and men think, “She never speaks up or shares her opinion.”

To overcome this issue, you must speak up in the meeting, even if you’re still in analyzing mode. Like it or not, participating means actively and visibly participating during the conversation, not only afterwards with a thoughtful email response or one-to-one conversations.

Communication challenge: A woman’s idea isn’t acknowledged until a man repeats it

Has this happened to you? You share your thoughts on a subject and nobody acknowledges it. Then, a few minutes later, your male colleague shares the exact same idea and the room practically gives him a standing ovation. A lot of women get frustrated about this, so let’s explore why this happens before we talk about how to fix it.

Of course, I acknowledge that this situation is frustrating! And though you’re likely to work with some jerks in your professional career, most of the men you deal with aren’t out to get you, steal your ideas or make you look bad in front of the boss.

This man-splaining situation is often related to confidence[2] . When a woman doesn’t seem confident about an idea, the audience picks up on that. Maybe it’s her tone or she’s using hedging words (such as I think, I believe, it could be, etc.) or maybe her verbal and non-verbal presence aren’t aligned—these signs cast doubt about the idea. And if the person saying the idea isn’t confident about it, why would the audience pay any attention?

Like I mentioned earlier, men’s default communication style includes a lot of confidence, conviction and authority.

To overcome this issue, you must take your idea back with dignity and without alienating the man—let’s call him John—who got the room to hear it. Don’t say, “I just said that,” with crossed arms and an eye roll. Instead, speak up and say something like, “Oh my gosh, John, thanks so much for elaborating on what I just said. That was terrific! You know what, now that everybody’s in agreement, let’s see how we expand on it.”

By taking this approach, you own your idea, you and John both look good and you invite the whole room to collaborate further. It’s not about being right, it’s about doing what you can to best serve the entire audience. By addressing a potentially frustrating issue with grace, you invite other people to also speak up and you help pull the best out of everybody. Getting the best out of others is an essential skill for leaders and women tend to be great at this.

Communication challenge: Talking too much and repeating your statement unnecessarily

Some people are uncomfortable with silence which leads to talking more than necessary to fill the silence. Women tend to repeat things because they don’t feel heard the first time around. Whatever the reason for talking too much, it makes effective communication difficult. People don’t listen carefully to people who ramble on.

To overcome this issue, you must first be able to articulate your position clearly and concisely and stop talking when you’ve accomplished this. After a little silence, which you’ll get more comfortable with the more you practice, you can invite others into the discussion by saying, “What are your thoughts on what I just shared with you?”

Being able to articulate your thoughts takes thinking and practice. If you’ve got a presentation to do, it’s helpful to practice in front of someone ahead of time and ask them to pick holes in your arguments. This helps you prepare for objections and not take dissenting opinions personally.   

Communication challenge: Dealing with ideas that get shot down

Sometimes, ideas get shot down because there are one or more dominant personalities that take over the group. When ideas are shot down, self-doubt and fear kick in and we become less likely to keep sharing ideas. When good ideas aren’t explored, it doesn’t serve the group’s purpose so communicating effectively also includes advocating for good ideas, whether it’s your idea or someone else’s.

To bring an idea back, try saying something like, “Hang on a second. I think there was some merit to what was just said. Let’s expand on that.”

This takes away dominance and turns the room into an inclusive environment where people can communicate effectively. It’s not easy to do and it takes skills, guts and practice, but people will admire and respect you for clearing the stage so everyone can get their voice heard.

Now that we’ve talked about common communication challenges women face in the boardroom, let’s look at the two communication superpowers that tend to come naturally to women.  

Women’s communication superpowers: Listening and clarifying

Women tend to be terrific at listening and clarifying. Listening helps you understand what’s going on and tune in to what’s being said and not said. Listening well lets you expand the conversation with clarifying questions.

For example, if John says something with authority and conviction that you know is a terrible idea, it doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose to shoot John’s idea down or aggressively challenge him. Instead, you can use clarifying questions to help bring the real issues to the table.

Examples of clarifying questions and statements:

  • Help us understand how this will affect our staff at the call centre…
  • What will the ripple effects be for our clients who count on us for that service?
  • How do you propose we ensure people are bought into this new process?

Asking these open-ended questions expands the conversation and stops us from climbing the ladder of conclusions, where we jump to conclusions about what someone else thinks and put that false assumption on repeat. Instead of wondering what someone means, you can know for sure by asking a clarifying question such as, “When you said you were concerned about the direction we’re taking, I’m curious, what did you mean by that?”

Communicating effectively makes such a positive difference at work which is why I love helping women develop this skill. I’m confident that you can gain the communication skills you need to navigate any boardroom, even if you’re the lone woman at the table. And remember, I’m here to help.


Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: Coaching, Networking, Peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website.



 [2] Link to Boost Unshakeable Confidence blog post

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