During my first year out of college, I worked in a legal organization that assists men and women from all over the world. Many of the clients are men from countries where women aren’t highly valued, let alone taken seriously or even allowed in professional atmospheres. This is especially true for women my age.
It goes without saying that there were some difficulties when I had to build working relationships with these men. And to make things more difficult, the relations my co-workers witnessed between my client and me affected the way my co-workers treated me too.
Gone were the days of my simpler problems — dealing with my clients posed a much bigger challenge.
So, out of necessity, I had to take a step back and re-evaluate my mannerisms and self-presentation to learn to command respect in order to get my job done on a daily basis. And, (just because I’m a go-getter) I decided why not shoot for the moon and adjust those mannerisms so that I would not only be taken seriously, but could also become an influential member within workplace?
Although work ethic and knowledge should be the only determining factors when an employee is striving for influence and respect, we are all social creatures and so both appearance and communication come into play as well. Unfortunately, I've witnessed that young women have it much tougher when pushing for influence and respect in both co-gender and male dominated work environments. But on the reverse, it makes it that much more rewarding and valuable when you finally do earn that influence and respect. We may have to push harder, but it says a lot about a young "girl" when she's able to finally strut her stuff as a capable "woman".
Here are a couple of tips and adjustments that have worked for me and may help you when dealing not only with male clients and co-workers, but with anyone who is giving you a hard time and undermining your value because you are a young woman.
1. Be Statuesque, Rather Than Sexy
It’s pointless to attempt to hide the fact that both men and women like to look their best and even attractive in the work place. My physical appearance undoubtedly affects my confidence and even happiness on a daily basis so I do my best to look nice.
Men seem to easily be able to strut their clean cut and suave looks in the workplace and of course women should be able to do the same. But it is more difficult for women to escape the accusation of using sex appeal in the workplace, which is why I advise that young women make a conscious effort to present themselves in a statuesque manner, rather than a sexy manner. Aiming for grace, dignity and poise rather than seduction or desire can help you overcome the fine line between what your co-workers may consider either a sexy distraction or an elegant contribution.
2. Keep the Maintenance Low, and the Sleeves Rolled Up High
I know that there are some of you out there that still need to hear this so I’m going to throw it out there! You’ve got to be able to do the sophisticated work and the dirty work too. So dress to impress, but with the ability to tough it out too.
I absolutely love cute and professional dress, because just like the men in my workplace want to look sharp, I want to look magnificent.
But my jewelry is never too dangly, my heels are never too high, my sleeves are never too feathery, and my hair is never too loose to handle a crisis, last minute deadlines, a frustrating board member or a panicked client with ease.
3. Get Chummy with the Men… and the Women
A lot of young women feel like the best way to earn respect and be treated as an equal is to chum up with the men in the workplace and completely separate themselves from the women. But a member that truly deserves respect and has what it takes to be an influential voice and perhaps even a leader is a member that knows to respect and value all of the other members on his or her team.
Further, how could any motivated female expect to gain respect in a hypothetically male dominated workforce, if she herself doesn’t respect her fellow women?
You’re going to gain the most respect, and more importantly support by building good relationships with both the men and the women in the office. No matter what you're trying to achieve, always focus on the team. That's what truly makes leaders.
4. Avoid the BFF Tendency
Try not to buddy up too much. The BFF tendency that none of us can deny having is a drawback in the workplace because it makes you look less independent and therefore less capable.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with our tendencies and desire to be close to and share with one another. Women value relationships so highly. But you honestly shouldn’t be walking through the workplace attached to someone else’s hip all the time, or vice versa. When your boss or your team members think or speak of you, you want them to think of you and only you. Not you and … so and so.
5. Don’t Be A Maneater
Charging in like you have something to prove by consciously trying to mow over other co-workers doesn’t earn you respect and nor does beating out all of your “feminine” qualities.
I remember reading a chapter in the book "Secrets of Six Figure Women", by Barbara Stanny ( a book that I HIGHLY recommend) the other day. She was interviewing a top level female executive who said that when she first started working in her office she charged in every morning in all black suits, a hard walk, and a tough chick persona. I cringed at the thought of this, and she lamented that she regretted it.
I refer to the term “maneater” because I overhear and observe a lot of young women who only think that they’re winning when they contribute to their male counterparts failing. But that’s not what work or success is about, and the sooner that you learn this the better. Influential members, and eventual leaders support and enable, they don’t break their own team members, male or female.
In terms of learning to value your “feminine” qualities I’m definitely not suggesting that women must be submissive, that they have to cower or congratulate their teams with smiley face stickers, or that they have to be emotional and constantly nurturing.
Women, or course can and will drive hard bargains and lead with assertiveness and aggression too. But our tendencies to collaborate, our ability to read and take advantage of emotional cues, our cautious demeanors, listening skills and scrutiny, all qualities that are particularly unique strengths for women may be lost if we’re too busy trying to mimic male co-workers and their qualities.
Remember to play to your own strengths, which could be a combination of any.
6. Use Strong Rhetoric ( I like to refer to it is Male Rhetoric)
This may be more relevant for young female employees, but I’ve noticed that many friends of mine, many of my interns and many of my co-workers habitually use rhetoric that lacks certainty and expresses doubt and second-guessing.
Work on not using words that express doubt or uncertainty. Also, try and use fewer words that could be considered intimate or emotional, such as “feeling” or “hoping”. I started practicing this when I was in college and since then, people who have first time encounters with me through writing still assume that I am a man before they meet me. Still though, I have to practice in the mirror before interviews or meetings, cutting phrases like " I would love to" out of my vocabulary.
Now, before I ruffle any feathers, my point is not that you should try and sound like your male co-workers. But I do want to point out that you may be able to pick up some tips from them that can help you establish yourself and provoke more action in the people that you’re working with.
Like tone of voice, body language and other cues, certain types of rhetoric will elicit different responses from your audience.
For example, if my boss is asking for decision or I am making a proposal I will choose words such as:
- I am sure that, versus I feel like
- I am looking forward to, versus I’d love to
- It would be beneficial, versus it would be nice
- I want to, versus I would like to
- I recommend, versus maybe we should
These words push and convince my superiors and co-workers to act on my opinions and suggestions much faster because they convey more certainty in and ownership of the idea being communicated. Men and women alike trust me more, and I sound more firm in what may still simply be a belief and therefore reliable.
You see, I may still just be offering a "belief" but my firmness gives my listeners more confidence in that belief.
Believe it or not, these subtleties do have an effect on your influence within your office and amongst your co-workers. A strong team player can only become a strong influence by communicating her ideas with certainty and strength.
If you are looking to improve your communication skills, you can always take online classes. I understand that going back to school may not be a priority, but it might actually be exactly what you need. For example you can be learn about negotiating and conflict engagement or dispute resolution online by following an online Mediation Training program. Plus, they have a class about culture, gender and power differences that will give you many considerable advantages in which ever your position you hold in the company.
7. Study Hard and Know Your Stuff
My dad always told me that I should always work to be twice as good as my male counterpart. And though it should never be a competition, if it has to be you need to make sure that you know your stuff and remember these three things.
- Your best weapon is your ability to contribute more to the team than your competition can.
- Knowing that you know your stuff fuels your confidence and increases your ability to both hold your weight against the competition and communicate with strength.
- Knowing your stuff keeps you at the table, in the discussion and gives you influence.
Now... go for it!
And please share comments! This is such an important topic for female professionals especially with so many of us entering the workforce, and I'm always so interested in hearing stories and opinions on it!