Tips for Male Execs Speaking to a Group of Women

I have attended more than my fair share of professional development events as a participant, organizer, and/or facilitator. At these development sessions, it is common to have an executive speak to the participants. Some exec are great speakers who engage their audience and others you just have to suffer through, but truthfully, they all seem to have a genuine desire to impart wisdom and share valuable lessons learned.

Recently I noticed a trend….

When an executive (male or female) speaks to a mixed group of men and women high potentials, they will share a story about a valuable lesson they learned from either 1) A boss or mentor 2) An employee or group of employees 3) A difficult business situation.

Women execs follow the same pattern when speaking with all female audiences.

However, when a male exec is speaking to a group of women, almost without exception, he will place a heavy emphasis on his mom, wife, or daughter(s). Why is that? They rarely, if ever, place such an emphasis on these close family relations when speaking to an audience that includes men.

Rather than assuming the worst, let’s take a rational look at things.

Execs are human and, like most of us, can be uncomfortable and unsure when dealing with a group different from themselves. Male execs are most likely making a good faith effort to relate to their female audience.

Being a huge believer in developing leaders, I offer some additional ways that male leaders can relate to their female audience and provide value added insights.

Invite a Few Male High Potentials:

Consider them quality control. If what you are going to share will not be value added for these men, then it will probably not be very value added for the women you are speaking to.

Besides, as leaders or future leaders, they could benefit from understanding issues that professional women are working through. There is also the side benefit of learning to become comfortable with and interact with a group of professional women.

Read Up on the Issues:

You don’t have to do extensive research or become an expert on women’s issues. However, you should have a general knowledge of the challenges professional women face and a cursory understanding of the advice that they frequently encounter.

Ideally, you have read at least one book on the topic. Some of the more frequently read books on the subject are Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel, The Confidence Code by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman, Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan, or What Works for Women at Work by Joan Williams & Rachel Dempsey.

If you don’t have the time for a book, a simple search on Google will offer up several good articles on the topic. The firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times spawned a slew of thoughtful articles that may offer some insight.

Explains a Few of the Hidden Rules:

Every company has some hidden rules that most employees just know. There are also hidden rules of behavior that men naturally understand but women are completely in the dark about. Share some of these rules …. women might not like or agree with them, but we need to know about them.

Understand the Catch 22:

Women often find themselves caught between the two stereotypes of professional women. They must walk a very fine tightrope between

  1. Leadership behaviors that are more masculine. You will know these women by the words used to described them when they are not in the room – Arrogant, Aggressive, Edgy, Don’t “Fit In.”
  2. Leadership behaviors that are more feminine. These women are usually very well liked but are often overlooked and are not seen as power players.

These two stereotypes can be a good reference in understanding the unique challenges of women and can inform some of the advice you offer. Please understand, that while there is truth behind these two stereotypes, it is not an either/or issue and there is a wide spectrum of behaviors and perceptions.

Talk about Power:

As an executive you have power. It’s not something that we like to talk about, but we need to. The power dynamics in corporations can be very tricky for women and they need your insights.

Consider sharing advice on how to gain power, how to leverage power, how to not misuse power. Also, how to appropriately respond to others who have power and how to handle power struggles.

Talk about Business Challenges:

Not everything should be about gender. What is going on in the industry? What are the challenges you need help solving? What are the various levers that you can pull to achieve desired outcomes?


Sarah Bodner, PhD is a confidential thought partner for high-level executives and an influential systems thinker who operationalizes the critical link between employees, corporate image, and business strategy

She is the creator of Lady Boss, an executive education program for male leaders that provides them with useful tools to support the development and career advancement of women leaders and high potentials.