I have been asked to participate on panels before and I have been the only woman on a panel before. But, my experience of one panel in particular – an all-male-except-for-me panel – stuck with me for a long time.
The first half of the meeting went really well. My preparation paid-off and I felt confident in my participation and contributions. As I headed out on the break, one of the organizers pulled me aside, looked me in the eye and said, “please try not to talk so much during the afternoon session.”
My reaction? Stunned is a better word than surprised. Embarrassed and self-conscious, I immediately replayed every word in my head and questioned my assessment of my performance. I didn’t think I was long-winded. My contributions were specific. I made direct points and provided the data to back them up. Nevertheless, I apologized and agreed to not talk as much.
That conversation – and that promise – did not sit well with me. Over lunch, I checked in with a few well-respected female colleagues who helped me think through what I had experienced, and as a result, I decided that I would not not-talk during the second half of the panel. So, I didn’t.
The experience and the feelings I had that day never really left me. It genuinely shook my confidence. I still find myself replaying the events of the morning, my own experience of the meeting and the organizer’s request. I keep asking myself if I really do speak too much. Am I long-winded? Should I have tried to limit my comments after all? And if you know me, you might be smiling right now because I do like to ask lots of questions, share ideas and attempt to find solutions in these forums. Therefore, that one request (or criticism) made me second guess my participation not only in that panel experience but in everything that I have participated in since—even as an audience member.
But here’s the thing about feedback or criticism, it’s subjective. It’s our job to figure out what we are and aren’t willing to compromise and how highly we should value advice at odds with our own experience. After too much thought and contemplation in that situation, I decided to reject the organizer’s feedback. I thought about it a lot, and I know that my participation added value for the group despite the comments I got at the break.
My advice for others is this: be open to feedback from friends, mentors or others; but, also evaluate the feedback you get as objectively as possible. It is on YOU to assess that feedback. Your work experience and your intuition are valuable tools. Don’t assume that any piece of advice automatically invalidates them. Instead, when it comes to advice, decide whether you should or shouldn’t accept it and boldly move forward.