Even today, there are some unspoken double standards for women and men in the workplace. Sure, we’ve (hopefully) moved on from the worst of the Mad Men style of blatant sexism in the office, and these days you can find women working alongside men at all levels of an industry. Still, stereotypes and differences linger in every field, every industry, every job. So what can you do, as a professional woman, to help get through this minefield of professional issues and excel at work?
1. Dress the part.
This is definitely one of those double standard gray areas. Do you let yourself dress casually (or even on the slouchy side) like some of your male colleagues might do, to show that you’re their equal? Or do you lean into the idea that women should be dressing more nicely at work? It’s a valid debate, but whenever a work dress code is up for discussion, always err on the side of dressing up a notch or two. But unfairly or not, women are often held to a higher standard—and the more professionally you dress, the more professional you seem.
If you work in an office where jeans and sneakers are the unofficial uniform, you don’t need to bust out your fanciest pantsuit. A jacket or blazer over your jeans can bump up the professional factor in a super-cazh office, or that same blazer over crisp, tailored pants in a business-casual environment works as well. Always on the “don’t even think about it” list: low-cut anything, tops that show more skin than they cover, short skirts, and flamboyant jewelry or accessories. Wearing these things can distract attention from how well you’re doing your job, and give people a reason to take you less-than-seriously.
2. Don’t let others undercut your authority.
If you have direct reports or are in a position of authority, make sure people treat you accordingly. I’ve been in situations where clients would automatically start talking past me to my boss or to male colleagues in the room, when I was actually the one responsible for making day-to-day decisions and getting things done on the client’s behalf. If you can feel someone eroding your authority (and they may not even realize they’re doing it), firmly remind them of your role. Make sure that people understand what you’re bringing to the table: “As Chip’s supervisor, I’ll be the one making sure our team reports the sales.” “In my experience as a ________, I can see what the challenges will be here.”
You’ve worked hard to get to your role, and you deserve to be acknowledged for it.
3. Be assertive (but not overly aggressive).
In a perfect world, my advice would be “go for it, lady! Show them what’s what, in no uncertain terms!” In this imperfect world, however, women perceived as aggressive bosses or colleagues can quickly find themselves tagged as “witches” (or the similar word we all know), “ballbusters,” and the like. This can be just as damaging to workplace respect and progress than being a pushover. It’s totally unfair, because everyone has their own personal style, and some people are just aggressive—but these perceptions are a fact of professional life, at least for now. So how does one find that place where one is upfront about what one wants but isn’t perceived as some kind of monster? Where is that sweet spot of straightforward respect and authority?
Essentially, the best way to get there is saying what you want, but being careful about how it’s phrased. Making blunt demands, or giving feedback like “that’s wrong” is likely to turn off your audience, male or female. This is where stellar communication skills come in handy. Use a tone that’s non-confrontational, so that the other person isn’t automatically feeling defensive and ready to mutiny. And even when you disagree, try to find some common element that you can use as an olive branch before explaining what you want to do differently: “I see what you’re saying, and although I do agree that we need to raise revenue, I see it a little differently.”
One strategy is to ask questions instead of diving in with statements. That way, you can be part of starting a dialogue instead of something that can be perceived as an “attack.” Asking clarification questions like “where do you see this going?” or “how does this impact our goals?” opens up a communication line with the other speaker, and will give you an opportunity to say what you want to express as part of the back-and-forth.
4. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
When I was younger, I was told things like “never disagree with your boss in public.” And now that I’ve been around longer, I think that’s true—to an extent. I’d modify it to, “if you disagree, do it respectfully—and pick your moments.” One of the biggest challenges facing many professional women (especially younger ones) is the idea that they should hang back and let more senior people hash things out. And while I don’t recommend inserting yourself into every single debate in every single meeting just for the sake of being heard, remember that you’re in the room for a reason. If you disagree with something being discussed, don’t be afraid to say so—but again, always phrase it as respectfully and diplomatically as possible.
And again, pick your moment. If your boss is giving a presentation in front of bigwigs, and you see that she’s wrong about something, don’t throw her under the bus in front of everyone, or give a loud and long dissent in the meeting. If you’re directly asked about your opinion, give it carefully. Or talk about it offline with your boss later. Your opinion is valuable, and your insights can earn you respect and acknowledgment if they’re expressed well.
5. Don’t let people talk over you.
We’ve all been there: you’re talking about something work-related, and a colleague (often older and male) breaks in and, in a dismissive tone, gives an opinion about why you’re wrong, without letting you finish the thought. Unless you’ve been filibustering the floor with a long monologue, this is poor form on the interruptor’s part. And no one likes this kind of bullying tactic. So how do you handle in the moment? Politely interrupt them back, and ask to finish your point, or try to turn it into a dialogue instead of a lecture.
6. Advocate for yourself.
This is, hands-down, one of the best things you can do to get respect at work. Knowing what you want, and how to ask for it, is a skill that will serve every professional (male or female) well throughout a career. Being able to negotiate is a key leadership skill, and one every woman should have at the ready as a professional. Asking for what you want is a great first step, but you also need to know how to navigate what comes next: an offer, a counteroffer, and when to agree or walk away.
7. Know when to fold ‘em.
If you’re in a work situation where you try all these strategies and you’re still not getting the level of professional respect you deserve, then it could very well be time to walk away. You’re not obligated to stay in a role where you are defined and treated according to stale old perceptions about what women are and should be, so if you find that you’re spending more time counteracting stereotypes than actually doing your job, it could be time to get out. There’s no shame in wanting to find a better environment for your skills and personality. And with your brushed-up negotiation skills, your next opportunity could be right around the corner.
Every professional deserves respect: male, female, young, old, green, experienced. Stepping up to request and take that respect, however, can be a big challenge. We still have a long way to go before everyone in the workplace is completely equal (even in the most gender-balanced fields and the most supportive companies, decades-old perceptions tend to die hard), but in the meantime, we hope you never stop striving to get everything you can out of your career.