Where are all the female public speakers? Catherine McGrath's mission to give women a voice

Where are all the female public speakers? Catherine McGrath’s mission to give women a voice

Business Spotlight #WomenSpeaking: Does the prospect of public speaking make you want to run for the hills? You’re not alone.

That’s why media personality, Catherine McGrath tailored specialist workshops for women to build up their speaking confidence in professional forums. (Partner Content)

Catherine McGrath knows a thing or two about public speaking.

As a media professional with over 30 years experience in television and radio, she’s learnt to push through confidence barriers, speak up in male dominated environments, and fight the scourge of imposter syndrome.

But during her career, she’s also come to recognise how few women are afforded the opportunity to do the same. Becoming increasingly aware of the number of business conferences and events which routinely moved ahead with no female presenters left Catherine reeling and driven to shift the dial for female speaking talent.

“Women are not visible enough and their magnificent work isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” she tells me. “So some of these women don’t get the promotions, opportunities and recognition they should be getting.”

“Women are not visible enough and their magnificent work isn’t getting the attention it deserves,”

Catherine believes such a critical disadvantage for female leaders is rupturing our chances of workplace gender equality.

“I think this is a key missing ingredient as we push for gender equity. We need to ensure that women have training opportunities so they can develop their presentation skills and confidence.”

It was with this realisation that Catherine chose to start a unique training program, #WomenSpeaking designed to help professional women establish public speaking confidence.

“Women need the space to learn, train and practice. They need to be able to identify pathways towards further improvement. They need to understand what speaking success looks like,” she tells me.

Since last year, #WomenSpeaking workshops have grown exponentially and now run in Canberra and Sydney with plans to branch to Melbourne later this year. I caught up with Catherine recently to hear about her plans for future growth and the importance of seeing more women speak up in professional forums.

Were you fearful or apprehensive to start your business and if so, how did you overcome this?

I wasn’t apprehensive about starting #WomenSpeaking workshops because I could see there is a huge unmet need in this area. Women are looking for support but before #WomenSpeaking workshops started they had no solution that could address their skills gap.

Starting a business has meant that I have had to learn many new skills, but I have loved every minute of it. I am busier than I have ever been. I have a really strong belief that we need to empower women in the workplace and help them find their voice, so they can grow and develop the careers they need and deserve.

What do you think holds women back from speaking opportunities?

I think there are a number of inter-relating factors at play. Let’s not forget that many business events, even these days, are heavily male dominated. The environment isn’t always supportive for women who want to speak in these settings. Sometimes women feel judged by their audience or peers and so are reluctant to put themselves out there.

In my experience, when women fear speaking it is often because they lack the skills and training and don’t know where to start in writing and developing a strong, strategic presentation for a specific audience. The other problem is that they have too few chances to practice and the more senior they become there can be fewer opportunities to speak in low stress environments, so the stakes are higher. Once avoidance becomes a pattern it can be hard to break.

There are structural barriers in the workplace for sure that have worked against women speaking at work for a very long time. While we address the structural barriers, it is also important to ensure women have a chance to develop the skills they need.

Do you believe women, more than men, suffer from confidence deficits?

I think a lot of professionals, both men and women can suffer from a lack of confidence. Not everyone is a natural speaker. However, I think women have a unique set of challenges to deal with that are a result of our gendered society and structures from yester-year.

Many women feel judged when they stand in front of an audience and they can lack confidence in their ability to pull it off. Strong successful confident women are often less likely to want to just ‘wing it’. They want to have time to plan a presentation and often feel they want to be 110% ready before they step out there.

Professional women tend to hold themselves to very high standards and they kick themselves when they feel they are not up to scratch. Their inner critic can be their worst enemy. Many women are actually great speakers, they just don’t know it yet. Men in general, are less likely to feel a crisis of confidence.

Why do you think it’s important for more women to be involved in speaking opportunities?

Women need to be visible in the workplace. Speaking gives us that opportunity. It gives us a chance to promote our work, our businesses, our sector and our community involvement. It allows peers and supervisors to see the work we are doing, and it allows women to demonstrate they are ready to step up to leadership roles in their organisations and sectors.

It allows us to communicate our ideas and vision. Women are doing such great work, it is important that other people get to see that and realise what a great contribution many women are making. Publicising our professional successes doesn’t always come naturally to us but in a workplace it is essential as it allows others to see and value what we are doing. It sends out the signal and demonstrates that you are a success.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

My mother gave me the best advice ever when I returned to full time work after having my first child. It was in the 90s and I thought she may be concerned about me returning full time. She told me to ‘go for it’. She said, ‘if you are going to be working you may as well work at as high a level as you can.’ It was the best advice ever.

What is your biggest source of inspiration?

The professional women I meet every day inspire me. They are so clever and successful. They really have the goods. I want to help them understand that they are ready to take to the stage. They are ready to share their ideas and successes. They have so much to offer and the world wants and needs to hear from them.

How do you stay motivated?

I still get excited each and every day and I absolutely love training women and seeing them grow. I get excited about the next workshop I have planned and I love hearing from women I have worked with when they tell me about their speaking and professional successes. When they get excited, I get excited! When they grow I grow too.

How would your friends and family describe you?

I think they would say I am energetic and visionary. I don’t allow myself or my goals to be defined by others. There has been no specific, strategic, wholistic speaker training for professional women available in Australia and I see this as a real opportunity to develop a great business that can really support women in this key task.

What’s the future for #WomenSpeaking?

I want to take #WomenSpeaking Australia wide and then into the Asia/Pacific region. I want to help women understand that have got this covered. They can do it. They do not need to hide their brilliance any more. They can shout it from the rooftops. I plan to do this by growing strategic partnerships with businesses and professional organisations.

Every client I have had has returned for repeat business and has referred me to others. I want to train up more people to help deliver this training and set up online learning support for participants as we go forward. My team and I plan to grow the entire #WomenSpeaking network so that it is a platform for professional support for women. We won’t stop until we deliver a 50/50 balance in women/men speaking at conferences and events in all sectors. That would include keynote speaking as well as industry panels and business events.

What key attributes make a great leader?

I think the most important attributes for great leaders are creative vision, fresh ideas, emotional intelligence and speaking skills. A visionary leader with fresh ideas can see where change is needed and make that change happen. A leader has to be able to pick up on the emotions and goals of others.

We have to be able to see things from the perspective of others and keep ourselves focused on key goals. We have to listen then seek our own wise counsel. Then once a plan is set leaders need energy, drive and focus to ensure it is delivered. Speaking skills are crucial because we have to be able to inspire others and create interest, excitement and support for our vision. Leaders have to be able to convince people they are on the right track. We must keep a sense of humour and perspective. We must also stand up for what we believe it. In my case that is equity and fairness.


Get in quick to attend Catherine’s upcoming workshops in Sydney and Canberra. 


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