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  • Emily Goldfischer

What to Do When You’re the Only Woman on a Panel

When I was invited to present on a panel at IHIF, the International Hospitality Investment Forum––held last week in Berlin––initially, I was thrilled! What a great opportunity for me to spread the word about hertelier, at one of the biggest events of the year for hotel industry leaders… of course, I said YES!

Immediately, joy turned to panic. I was scared to be the only woman in a group of men, each with years of experience in the business, not to mention the idea of being on a stage, having only been on Zoom the last two years!

It made me think that I might not be the only woman to experience these fears and this would be a useful article for hertelier. So, I turned to some experts: a regular on the hotel conference circuit, Gilda Perez-Alvarado, CEO of JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group, Nancy Medoff, author of Unmute Yourself: Speak Up to Stand Out, and Peggy Berg, founder, and president of the Castell Project, which offers leadership training for women in hospitality.


As the CEO of the Hotels & Hospitality Group for JLL, the largest global commercial real estate company in a very male-dominated sector of the industry, Gilda is often the lone woman on panels.

“Yes, it happens that I am usually the only woman on any given panel, yet there are many qualified women to participate in panels. This needs to change,” said Gilda, who I managed to grab in Berlin the day before my panel.

“My big observation is that women are always well prepared, they do the homework, but sometimes struggle to deliver with confidence. They bring notes and try to read some, but it doesn’t work.” It was like she could see right through me! I had put together about six pages of notes for my panel. #guilty “Don’t bring your notes!” she actually didn’t yell, but the point was received.

“Having notes is distracting and also keeps you from engaging with the audience. You want to be looking at the audience and projecting. You know your subject so speak with confidence. 75% of people’s impression of you is the presentation and delivery, I learned that as a broker,” she confided. “The most important thing is to PROJECT. If you have great points and nobody can hear you, that’s not helpful! Also, if you don’t speak up–and I’ve seen this happen many times–someone else will just restate your point and then get the credit.”

“The most important thing is to PROJECT. If you have great points and nobody can hear you, that’s not helpful! Also, if you don’t speak up–and I’ve seen this happen many times–someone else will just restate your point and then get the credit.”

Communications expert and best-selling author, Nancy Medoff, agrees. She advises if you are one of few women (or the only woman) on the stage, step into your strengths and OWN the stage. Nancy offers these three tactics:

  1. Ask yourself “so what”? What exactly is the problem if you are the only woman in the spotlight? Some would argue this is a good thing. Instead of “OMG I’m the only woman”, you can change your internal dialogue to “well look at me, the only woman in a field of men. I’m so proud of how I’ve earned my seat on this panel.” Carry that confidence into the discussion!

  2. REFRAME: Change the narrative in your head. Turn “intimidation” into observation. Remember you are having FEELINGS and FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS. Many women throughout history have experienced the same feeling. Many men share the same feelings, and you know what? They do it anyway.

  3. Implement my three Rs for overcoming imposter syndrome:

  • Remind yourself - feelings are not facts

  • Redirect your anxiety into excited energy

  • Recall a time you felt the same and nailed it anyway

Prepare to be Interrupted

“Though I know you only asked for three, this is important,” Nancy added, ”PLAN to be interrupted. Know that you will have to speak up to be heard. Know that this is almost never about you and always about the offender. Prepare for those situations, so you can remain calm and continue to carry your message. If you get emotional or defensive, you take the focus away from what you are saying and more on how you’re behaving. Think about Kamala Harris when she was repeatedly interrupted by Mike Pence during the VP debates. She knew it was coming, she held her composure and when she ultimately shut him down, the whole world was cheering for her.”


That’s not a panel, it’s a MANel

Peggy Berg of the Castell Project, who has been in the hotel business for a few decades, made me laugh. She actually calls them “MANels” and says, “all-male panels are boring because men compete to be more important than each other. Adding a woman or two to any panel changes the dynamic, offering more varied perspectives that make the discussion more interesting and valuable for the audience and therefore the conference organizer.” She added her own set of tips, “Your presence changes the dynamic, but only a little bit by itself. You can control and dramatically upgrade the panel:

  1. Deliver value: Prepare three things that you’d like people to remember on the topic. That is the most anyone in the audience remembers from any panel, and in reality, they will leave with one or two takeaways. You want the thing they remember to be yours. So come to the panel with three ideas and a clear sharp memorable way to say each of those three things. Bonus tip: You don't have to exactly answer the question the moderator asks. You can turn it to the message you want to deliver.

  2. Challenge assumptions: Be engaged with your co-panelists. Pompous comments on a panel very rarely have interesting content, but if you ask a question or request clarification about inconsistency or challenge an oversimplification, you get much better insights for the audience and they root for you.

  3. Bring energy: Reserved monotonal men in dark suits don't exactly wake-up an audience. Bring energy to the podium in how you move, how you talk, what you say, how you sit, your facial expressions, the attention to pay to other panelists, and the conviction with which you speak. It's intimidating walking up there. Project energy right away and jump into the conversation early (up and involved); participation will get you over the nervousness.

  4. Add humor, naturally: It doesn't take much, a wry comment, a laugh, or a short funny story lightens the mood and gets all the panelists talking in a more relaxed and interesting way."

Chatting with Gilda, Nancy and Peggy definitely gave me a boost and helped with my focus. Luckily, the panel moderator suggested we meet for dinner the night before, which was great and helped me relax. My tip: If you have the opportunity to meet with your group beforehand, even just for a coffee, do that.

My tip: If you have the opportunity to meet with your group beforehand, even just for a coffee, do that.

On the day, I was still nervous. Against what I had anticipated, the men brought notes! So, I put my phone in my lap with my notes open, though I rarely looked at it. (I would not do that again and should have stuck with Gilda’s advice.) Once we got going my nerves dissipated and I did my best to chime in when I felt I had something to add, and we even had a few laughs.

Bottom line: Change your internal narrative to believe in your expertise, focus your prep on three valuable points, speak up and project, and try to have some fun!

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