Here’s the situation: I’m in a meeting with my coworker, Liz, our boss, 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.
So when my colleague Liz was speaking up there, even though to my boss it looked like unprofessional floundering, I recognized the classic symptoms of “speaking while female.”
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 Not through any fault of its own, it’s simply outdated for our current business model.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.
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.
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. Before my revelation, 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 counselled 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.
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.”
A lot of advice out there tells women to change their manner of speaking. Become more dominant, more assertive, more confident, in tone and delivery.
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.
People 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.
If you’re a man, stop taking women’s ideas and passing them off as your own. Simply pipe up and agree.
Whether man or woman, 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 can make all the difference.
Let’s stay in touch.