A good friend of mine recently asked me if she should sit at the head of the table during meetings with her organization. This question was remarkable because my friend is the Executive Director of the organization, and therefore its leader. If there is a meeting happening, chances are she is either leading it, being presented to as a client, or acting as a primary decision maker. So, why should my friend feel anxious or uncertain about sitting in her rightful place? Because women are not taught to be in charge, and are therefore uncomfortable representing themselves as such.
The head of the table is the symbolic place of authority. Interestingly, studies show that the perception of this symbolism is more effective for men than it is for women, specifically in the workplace context. Is this a surprise? No. However, as a society, we must re-envision leadership and modify the perception that only men are capable of it.
Typically, I like to sit at the head of the table (or the foot if it is not my meeting) whenever I have the opportunity. I do this to remind myself that I have every right to be where I am and I own my authority. Because most women are not groomed to govern, it is not the most comfortable fit when one first steps into a role that calls for it. As such, some tend to become either very passive people pleasers, or over-compensating autocrats. It’s important that we learn how to become effective leaders first by becoming comfortable with ourselves, and then with our position.
Deliberately positioning yourself in the most powerful place during a meeting will give you an added boost of confidence, and serve as a deeper exercise into your power role. I once had a meeting with a former professor who was then the Executive Director of a well-established organization. I got to the meeting room before he did so I had my pick of chairs to choose from. I chose to sit at the head of the table. When he walked in, he took immediate notice of my position, and said something to the effect of, I can tell you are a boss—you took the seat at the head of the table. I smiled, and thought “dam* right.”
There will not always be a situation where you can choose your seat, so you must learn to own your authority regardless of the chair you sit in. Once you have become comfortable with your ability and role as a leader, walking in it is easy. But until that time, I recommend finding ways to remind yourself of who you are and the validity of your position. Project during group discussions, sit upright, speak boldly and deliberately, and DO NOT let anyone make you feel like you are less than or an impostor. You belong in the room, and you absolutely belong at the head of the table.