"Dude, don't you realize she's the boss?"
It's a scene that many female executives can relate to.
In the latest installment of my interview series "Two Questions with Adam Bryant," Equinox CEO Niki Leondakis recalled the interaction from a meeting she attended about a decade ago. Even though she was the leader, she noticed the men in the room weren't making eye contact with her, and they were talking to her male subordinates instead of her.
When her colleague left the room, one of the men in the meeting said, "When your boss comes back in the room, we should discuss this." An awkward moment, to be sure, but Leondakis didn't have to say anything. Another colleague of hers set the record straight with his "dude" explanation.
"All of a sudden everything shifted, and they started making eye contact and redirecting the conversation to me," Leondakis said. "It just goes to show you that assumptions were made — because I was a woman, and the only one in the room, I was subordinate to the guy sitting next to me."
As she's moved into bigger jobs over the last decade — now as CEO of Equinox, and before that as CEO of Two Roads Hospitality and president and COO of Kimpton Hotels — Leondakis has had fewer moments like that. But it still happens on occasion, she said.
So she came up with a strategy to erase any doubt about her role: At the start of important meetings, she began introducing herself and placing her business card in front of each person at the table. Then, "people understood who was who," she said. "That was a trick I learned rather quickly."
Meeting dynamics like these can be challenging for women in business, given the familiar roll call of offenses by men: "mansplaining," not listening to women when they speak, repeating what a female colleague said and taking credit for the idea.
Leondakis's advice? "Don't let it psyche you out," she said. "Don't let the noise that that creates in your head stop you from being an active contributor. Make sure that you continue to engage. Lean into the conversation and assert your point of view." The key is to look people directly in the eye, she added, and eventually they will pick up on the fact that you're someone who deserves their attention.
While there are steps men can and should take to make sure women feel more included in conversations, Leondakis said women can do things to meet men where they are, as well. She likens it to learning a new language in a foreign country — in this case, a male-dominated culture. "Don't lose who you are, but learn to speak the language," she said.
One communication difference she's noticed is that women sometimes give more context than men. "Women tend to be more empathic," she said. "We tend to be more sensitive to how people are feeling and reacting. We are reading people's faces and we're responding to a lot of visual cues around us. Sometimes that causes us to give a lot of information, whereas men more often want to bottom-line it quickly." She recommends that women learn how to speak directly and succinctly, and then fill in with more information as needed.
Still, the headwinds that women face aren't going away anytime soon. And if somebody does seem biased against women, don't take it personally, she added.
"That's their problem," Leondakis said. "They're not hearing a lot of potentially good information because they're not listening to the right people."
Adam Bryant is a CNBC contributor and managing director of Merryck & Co., a senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, Bryant interviewed more than 500 leaders for the "Corner Office" feature he created at the New York Times. Be on the lookout for new "Two Questions" videos each month, and check out CNBC's ongoing coverage of women in business, "Closing The Gap."
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