On being female and assertive – life in business

Jennifer Lawrence (my soul-sister!) is in the news recently for an essay she wrote about gender inequality in Hollywood. 

“A few weeks ago, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-[BS] way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, ‘Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!’ As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”

Yes. I’ve lost count how many times this has happened to me at work. (See? Hollywood stars are just like us!)

There was that time, at a 5@7, where I discussed with my coworkers how women are tagged as brash, bossy, bullies when they exhibit the same behavioural traits as men, while men are deemed leaders, team-players and straight shooters. In retaliation, later that night, a male coworker, who somehow interpreted this conversation to be a reflection on him, publicly compared one of my family members to a prostitute. He’d never met this family member and was basing his opinion on one short, amusing anecdote. (The detailed account of that fun moment can be read here.)

There was that time when I was still working for one of the Big 4 accounting firms, when the client came into the conference room where we were set up, to discuss an inventory audit issue I had identified. He addressed his question to the senior-in-charge, who deferred it to me, as I had done all the work on inventory and had much a deeper understanding of the issue. I politely answered the client. The client looked at me in disgust (whether because of my self or because of my answer, I couldn’t tell), and addressed his counter-argument not to me, but to the senior-in-charge, who gently reminded him that I was the person he should be talking to. Again, I spoke, and again the client gave his response to the senior in charge. And so it went on for the entire FIFTEEN MINUTE conversation. I was invisible to the client. 

There was that time when I was on another audit client, on the first day of the audit, and I wished the controller a Happy New Year. He yelled at me – my audit team heard him from down the hallway. His face was red and a vein on his forehead was threatening to burst. He ranted that I had been causing his staff distress by overworking them during the holidays, that I was unprofessional and incompetent and he was going to complain to the partner (my boss) about my inefficiencies. At first, I was too shocked to say anything: I’d rarely felt such animosity in my life. My next impulse was to pacify the client. But as I started to speak, I was overwhelmed by anger – how dared he cast aspersions on my ability to do my job? My voice shook from the emotion, but I pointed out to him that I had invited him to participate in all the conference calls I’d organized and had cc’d him on all my requests to his staff. If he’d felt I was out of line, he should have intervened to protect his staff, rather than tacitly agree that they fulfill my requests and blast me after the fact, once it was too late for me to modify my approach. I added that I was disappointed that he would attack my reputation, rather than have a collaborative conversation to address any issues, and determine a mutually acceptable audit approach. 

I waited in silence, convinced that after that, an irate call to the partner was inevitable. Instead, he expressed surprise – why was I so upset? He had just been giving me some helpful feedback, I shouldn’t get so emotional, geez! I responded that while I was always appreciative of feedback on opportunities for improvement, being yelled at was not my preferred form of communication. He wasn’t yelling, he said. He just always spoke that loudly. I left the room before he could see my tears. He never mentioned his attempt to bully me to the partner. He also never raised his voice to my staff, all of whom where male. Coincidence? Maybe.

These experiences are just colourful examples of a phenomenon I lived through countless times. As a result, I developed what this article describes as “Woman In A Meeting” behaviour. After too many occasions where stating my opinion calmly, concisely and politely earned me an abusive or rude response, I learned to suggest rather than state. To tentatively repeat rather than insist. To wonder rather than confirm. I’ve frequently been in meetings where I was the most knowledgeable on a given topic, but I learned that my effectiveness with my male counterparts would increase if I hid my intelligence, and played the accommodating female. I still got my own way, but only after dedicating excessive energies to ensuring I didn’t ruffle any male feathers. It was exhausting and infuriating. It was also my reality.

A year ago, I got hired at a large engineering firm. Women account for less than 20% of both management and the workforce. I was ready, my Woman In A Meeting behaviour perfected. After a month on the job, my new boss pulled me into the office and asked me why I was such a doormat in the meetings I’d been attending. Taken aback, I pointed out that I always ended up getting my way, after long discussions – therefore, I wasn’t a doormat. He was perplexed. “Vanilla, we don’t have time for your roundabout shit. Why are you worried about ruffling feathers? If you have something that you need to say, say it quickly, politely and clearly. We are too busy to deal with any fluff – cut the crap, and get to the point. And if someone can’t handle your direct approach, that is their problem. You are a professional and a manager. Speak in the way you desire to be heard.”

Career defining advice.

I still struggle with being assertive in the workforce. I still dread the male outburst, which still happens on occasion. But I am growing more comfortable with standing my ground and expecting that others treat me with the same respect they treat their male counterparts. I’ve made my peace with the fact that this approach will prevent some people from liking me: I’d rather be respected and listened to, than liked. Me & JLaw, learning the same lessons at the same time. Next step is to try get JLaw’s salary…

P.S. Check out Elle Magazine’s 1minute video about #MoreWomen – showing the under-representation of women in powerful roles, by photoshopping out the men in pictures.

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10 comments

  1. Ever since I started working here, I’ve had women bosses. I appreciate your examples you gave. For me it isn’t about the gender, but the competence of the person and as you explained in your many examples you were showing exactly how things are done. It’s kind of interesting too how different people interpret yelling. Being a sensitve person, I feel like when someone is being aggressive, they are yelling at me, but another person would just think they are explaining plain and simple. I think that is where a lot of misunderstanding happens too.
    But to your point about women in the workplace, I feel like they should be respected unless their behavior doesn’t warrant it (IE they are sick all the time like some of my co-workers, or other ways) not because they are women.
    Great post by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can make allowances for sensitivity & perception. But this was clearly yelling. As in, my hair was blowing in the wind of his voice, and my audit team sitting down the hallway, tucked away in a conference room, heard every word he said, but none of the ones uttered by me (and my voice is rather penetrating, by default!). His voice dropped several decibels too, after he heard how upset I was.

      I’ve realised that plain and simple can be interpreted as harsh – which is why it should be plain, simple, said with kindness.

      But I’m done with spending excessive time catering to ppl’s emotions. If I am sent a file riddled with mistakes and inaccuracies, I just send it back with the comment “I identified several inaccuracies and inconsistencies (for eg. refer to X and Y, attached). Please validate your work and resubmit. If you would like to discuss or have questions, please do not hesistate to call me.” I would NEVER have done that in the past. But now, I realise that is ok!!

      Like

      1. I just couldn’t take the yelling and clearly it is unacceptable in the workplace regardless of the stature and status of someone. I just think it is crazy that anyone feels like that kind of yelling is okay in the workplace or otherwise. Get your anger management issues worked out man! I’d much rather they be bitter! 🙂

        And good for you, not being a doormat anymore and why should you be? If something is wrong or inaccurate, there is not disputing no matter how passionate a plea is given.
        And the whole not looking you in the eye or asking you what was going on, that is just plain rude, like the guy is better than you. I’ve had my share of issues at work, but way different than that.

        Like

  2. Yup, I totally know where you’re coming from. I work in a very male dominated environment (hello, Catholic church) and I learned very quickly that being direct would in some cases garner scowls of disapproval. I learned to get my way by suggesting and wondering and being very tenacious about my ideas and it worked out fine, but I am now completely different outside of work since I no longer spend five days a week being a meek little female. Doormat? Me? Not anymore and a lot of people are pleasantly surprised.

    Also, coming from a family where my father was and my brother is an accountant, but my significant other is an engineer? Yup, two totally different species. Their minds work in totally different ways and it took me a while to get the hang of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. After a meeting I thought had gone well, I once had a female colleague make me realize how our client had belittled her; she was very much in the right, and I hadn’t even realized it while it was happening right in front of me.

    I guess I’m not a total caveman since I realized she had a point; I couldn’t DO anything about it, but at least I opened my eyes.

    A lot of psych research shows that how women and men are perceived in meetings is hugely different – if a woman suggests something and a man backs her up (even while giving her credit explicitly), somehow it often gets remembered as his idea, and other such horribly unfair situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Preaching to the choir. 😀

      Good for your colleague for making you realize. Most men I know are oblivious to these issues, and don’t realize that their oblivion does not absolve them of any responsibility in this issue.

      The more you are aware, the more you’ll notice that kind of misbehaviour happens with surprising regularity. And soon you’ll start being faced with the awkward decision of what to do in those situations: watch silently, say something, etc. And THAT is when you’ll start to see how difficult it can be to be a woman. Do you “make a big deal about nothing?”, do you risk pissing off a lucrative client, do you risk being pegged one of “those” people, campaigning about a “non-existent” issue, do you risk being branded “over-sensitive”? I could go on.

      Like

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