When I was young I was small, slim and pretty. Now, I’m… small. I used to wear lots of makeup and the highest heels. The heels led to foot operations and now I wear flats. And less makeup. You might think I regret the passing of my younger self. I don’t. What I have now is so much more valuable. I have substance – and I don’t just mean physical substance, although strangely that doesn’t hurt either.
I could quote lots of statistics about the lack of women CEOs, women on boards, women in politics, women in power, the gender pay gap, gender inequality. But we all know the facts. One of the underlying reasons for all these issues is that women are still not viewed as being substantial. The default model of substantial is still male – preferably tall, well built, expansive and commanding.
Women don’t need to compete to be updating the model, but we can take note of the attributes that make men appear substantial, and use them to our own advantage. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t choose to, but with the benefit of hindsight I do question why we feel compelled to make up our faces to look more childlike, wear shoes that subvert our physiology and literally hobble us, and make our bodies as insubstantial as possible.
Margaret Thatcher famously gained authority when she was coached to speak at a lower pitch and wear padded shoulders and big hair. I’m not suggesting a return to 80s power dressing, but a woman’s stance and voice can count against her. We can quite easily develop both, without compromising our integrity, to increase our authority and presence.
Men are comfortable standing tall, spreading their arms and legs and talking loudly and at length. We have a tendency to close up our bodies, minimise the space we take up and keep quieter, especially when we’re stressed. This means we squash our diaphragms upwards and breathe shallowly, causing our voices to sound higher, squeakier and less powerful. This posture makes us look and sound insubstantial.
If you’re standing to speak, plant your feet hip distance apart and slightly bend your knees. Stand tall, pull your shoulders back and down; expand your ribcage. Walk about by all means, but when you stand still don’t cross your legs or squeeze them together. Walk like a man; talk like a man – or rather, like a substantial woman.
When you’re speaking from a sitting position – in a meeting or other discussion, avoid folding yourself neatly away: sit up, spread out, plant your feet flat on the floor place your hands on the table or gesture widely; forget ladylike and think woman of substance. A useful tip is to speak early on (even just to introduce yourself), ideally before the meeting properly begins, especially if you are among mainly men. This allows both you and the others to clock the timbre and pitch of your voice and you don’t end up making a sudden entrance late in the day.
If you’ve ever done yoga, you’ll remember DirgaSwasam Pranayama – or the Three-Part Breath. Breathe in slowly, filling first your belly, then your rib cage and finally the very top of your chest. Breathe out slowly in the same order, emptying your lungs from the bottom up. Practise doing this regularly, taking as long as possible, especially on the out breath. It induces a general sense of calm, is an invisible but effective tool in stressful situations, and when you speak up in a meeting or important conversation your voice will be stronger, steadier and a little deeper.
It’s an unfortunate but well documented fact that men – often unconsciously – interrupt and ignore women more than they do other men, and don’t always acknowledge women’s ideas until they’ve been voiced by another man. Simply by giving more substance to your spoken voice and using it with power, you can put a brake on these bad habits that all of us tend to ignore.
Smile when you’re speaking. In person, a smile is disarming, can act as an entrée to a discussion, and makes what you say harder to challenge. Even if you’re talking on the phone or Skype, a smile can be heard in your voice and makes the tone less harsh, more mellifluous. The act of smiling also releases endorphins, so de-stresses and gives you energy.
Another way of giving substance to your voice is to write regularly. Writing gives clarity, shape and form to your thoughts and ideas, which helps you express them succinctly and authoritatively in person. Writing also helps develop your ‘voice’, whether written or spoken, and a way to rehearse its style.
Published content also brings substance, whether you draw readers to a regular blog, contribute posts or articles to other blogs, websites or print media. But most substantial of all, write a book about your experience, knowledge and expertise, and enjoy the benefits of being a published author. Everyone respects an author, whether you refer people to your book rather than rehearse your arguments for or against a particular point; or draw on the extensive archive that you have laid down in your brain as you wrote 30,000+ words.
Finally, life experience in itself brings substance, so embrace it, don’t fear it. When we talk about ‘growing older’, the first word is the most important. A woman’s authentic voice can grow stronger and be heard more clearly with age – but whether you’re strutting in heels or stomping in flats, make your voice heard and claim your place as a woman of substance.