Women and men are equals but how they’re perceived in front of an audience is anything but.

A male executive stepping on stage is going to be judged very differently than a female executive. Take the issue of clothes, for example. For male execs it pretty much boils down to which shirt and tie to wear with the suit—a suit, any suit or any variation on a suit. For a female exec it’s, suit or a dress? If a suit, a pant suit or a skirt suit? If a dress, with a blazer or not? Hose? Heels? What kind of jewelry will set off the outfit without wreaking havoc with the mic?

The deeper issue behind the question of what to wear is how the clothing will add to or subtract from the executive’s presence. When an audience sees a man in a suit, it registers the suit as the statement of a position of authority—and then promptly forgets about it. What color or cut of the suit is immaterial, the perception has been established that the man is in charge, because of the suit. Women’s clothing neversinks into the background that way–there are still articles about Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, 20 years after she led her soccer team to victory. Still.

Clothes are the first thing the audience perceives about a woman, because society continues to judge women on their looks whether we admit it or not. And if a female exec’s clothing or hair or shoes don’t fit the preconceived image, the audience will remember it before they remember anything else. A colleague of mine coached a senior level female exec at a large pharma. She delivered an in-depth, knowledgeable and serious presentation. But what did she wear? A very pink dress, with her long blond locks tumbling about her shoulders. My colleague said that all anyone could think when they looked at her was, “Pharma Barbie.”

Once execs open their mouths to speak, it can get even worse.

Everyone gets a little nervous before going on stage and when they do, their voice rises higher in their chest. Men’s voices start lower on the scale so when anxiety pushes their voices up, it’s still a lower octave than where most women speak naturally. When anxiety triggers breathlessness in a woman, her voice gets higher and thinner. Think of the words associated with women’s high voices—shrill, shrieking, scolding—all of which are the opposite of resonant, which is associated with power.

Getting an exec ready to go on stage involves more than prepping talking points and slides. They’re being judged when they’re up there—and you can help them win points by getting them help with their presence as well as their presentation.

Leave a Reply