Here’s the situation: I’m in a meeting with my coworker, Liz, our boss Roger, and a few other members of our small team. Liz is explaining to us why she wants to put a process in place for new signups to our SaaS product. It’s a sensible suggestion, but our boss is reluctant. Here is Liz’s chance to sway him.
She says, looking at the table, “I’m probably just being over-procedural like normal, but I feel like it’s kind of important that we have something like a process for newcomers?”
Our boss doesn’t look convinced.
She continues, “I just think… if we have a set order of operations now, it’ll be easier when we start to get big — not that we couldn’t manage even then, but it would definitely be a little simpler, don’t you think?”
Silence reigns in the room.
The overwhelming and contradictory rain of messages is confusing even for the most seasoned (female) professional. It’s a thin, thin line, and on either side lies catastrophe. Too assertive? Take it down a notch. Not assertive enough? Nobody will take you seriously.
So when my colleague Liz was speaking up there, even though to my boss it looked like unprofessional floundering, I, of course, recognized the classic symptoms of “speaking while female.” Who hasn’t been there?
She was trying to convey the fact that our current process, designed by our boss, is flawed. Not through any fault of its own, it’s simply outdated for our current business model.
However, she’s learned that our boss is touchy. He values feedback only as long as it’s positive, or couched in terms of self-deprecation, hence why Liz referred to herself as “over-procedural” as a way to excuse her implication that his idea was not effective. Time after time, though he’d asked for our honest thoughts and opinions, we’ve learned that what he really wants to hear is that his current plans are going great. When we think we have to change them, it’s absolutely vital to come, ready to bow and scrape and bend, while still maintaining our idea is necessary to move forward. It’s uncomfortable.
Assertiveness is a two-sided sword for women. It’s simultaneously necessary to be successful and get your ideas across, but it’s read as aggressive, bitchy, bossy by men — and some women, too.
To enact change, we need to go through so many societal contortions to get our criticism deemed acceptable. We always walk the fine line of nice-not-pushy, confident-not-braggy, assertive-not-boastful.
This tightrope is difficult to balance on, and we often fall on the side of perceived as too aggressive, or too soft. This hampers our professional progression — and in the case above, means that our business isn’t going to be as strong or robust as Liz knows it could be.
It’s hard, honestly, to do it alone.
How can we help fix this?
I make eye contact with Liz. Normally, I would have commiserated with her after while having lunch. I would have said, “Oh Liz, I totally get what you mean — I’m such a freak for organization, I wish our boss was the same.” Maybe I would have counseled her to be more assertive next time.
Or I would have remained silent, not wanting her struggle to affect my relatively good relationship with our boss.
I am afraid of confrontation, scared to stand up even when I know it’s the right move. I’m scared to compromise the standing I have by
But now I know what I need to do. Sympathy is comforting but ultimately no good. Silence doesn’t move me or the company forward.
It’s hard to stand up for yourself alone. But it’s a little easier if you have support.
“I agree,” I say to the room. “We need a process for our new signups. You’re right.”
So much advice out there tells women to change their manner of speaking. Become more dominant, more assertive, more confident, in tone and delivery. The onus is on women to be more tolerable to men. If men don’t accept what we say, that’s our fault for not conforming to their way f doing things.
In other words, adopt the male version to fit in with their meetings.
But I disagree.
First of all, I believe it’s easier said than done to change decades of social conditioning. Not only did I learn in my year of working here, that my male coworkers resent it when I’m too forward, but I have nearly three decades of TV, social media, books and magazines, all telling me to let the men command the room. It’s hard for me, even when I know I’m right, to argue with my boss or other male coworkers.
People — women — can’t change overnight, and before we ask half the working population to do so, can’t we examine if there’s a better way?
Secondly, as I mentioned above, these kinds of changes can often be read as bitchy or boastful by coworkers and superiors, which can be detrimental to work relationships and performance.
My solution is simple: listen for it and respond.
The problem is that women don’t feel heard at meetings. Instead of insisting that they change, you need to support and speak up for them. As a woman, unfortunately, there’s only so much I can do. Evidence shows that even when I am assertive, even when I throw my weight in behind my female colleagues’ suggestions, we together are not taken as seriously as men.
Don’t commiserate with us. Fight with us. Change with us. Stop telling us we’re just a little too pitchy, or a shade too bitchy. Stop demanding we fit your criteria before you'll agree to support us because that's not what allies do.
So if you believe in equality, if you want to help women in your business, or even if you just want to help your business, start pitching in with women.
If you’re a man, stop taking women’s ideas and passing them off as your own. Simply pipe up and agree. Stop telling women they need to be more assertive, command the room more, speak in a lower pitch before you’ll listen to us.
When you see a woman struggling to pass an idea off, if she’s spoken over or if she’s not being responded to well, take the time to support her. Speak up, agree with her, let her know she’s been heard.
It’s no longer enough to let us know, later, privately, that you’re on our side. Put your money where your mouth is and stand up for us.
It can make all the difference.