About a year ago, a coworker asked for my thoughts on an email she was planning to send to a salesman who was giving her trouble. The project they were working on was overdue and he had shot down every previous draft. He said one version was “too fluffy.” He said another was “too design heavy.” He said a third draft was “just not right for the automotive guys,” as if only men drove cars. She wrote him an email telling him about the new direction she was taking with the marketing. At the end of the email, she wrote:
“Please keep an open mind and let me know your thoughts.”
She wanted to know if I thought the last line was too direct. I told her that men tend to respond to directness and strength. I told her to emphasize that this is the direction we are going with and to stop worrying about what he thought.
It blew my mind that this woman, who I viewed as strong and independent, who had climbed the ranks of corporate America all while having two children, still second-guessed herself and felt the need to placate. To go high while the men around her consistently went low.
Then I thought about all those times in my life when I did the same thing. All the times my college roommate said or did something disrespectful and I just laughed instead of asking her to stop. When I told my brother that I’d been grabbed by a man at a club, and all my brother said was that dating was a “contact sport.” The time I started a new job and was so desperate to fit in, that I never stood up for myself when my coworkers threw me under the bus. My politeness and deference came from not only being a woman but also a person of color. I watched my mother, a well-educated, dark-skinned black woman, navigate the corporate world. Even in the Bay Area where I grew up, she still faced adversity. If she spoke up she was “angry” or “unprofessional.” If she was silent she was “lazy” or “disinterested.”
When men express anger, they are seen as credible. When women express themselves in the same way they are often viewed as emotional and even untrustworthy. And this negative response to women begins in childhood. According to Linguist Robin Lakoff:
“a girl is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. If she refuses to talk like a lady, she is ridiculed and subjected to criticism as unfeminine; if she does learn, she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion: in some sense, as less than fully human.”
The other side of this issue is that often when women do stand up for themselves, they face immense criticism or even violence. Anecdotes about this type of violence abound, from the When Women Refuse thread on Tumblr to stories like that of Janese Talton-Jackson, who was fatally shot outside of a club when she refused her killer’s advances.
So, how do we get past this? How can we toe the line of asserting ourselves without being seen as unprofessional or emotional, and without facing violence at the hands of men?
Stand your ground but read the room – the language you’d use to assert yourself with a loved one is not the same as what you’d use with a coworker or a stranger. When the time calls for you to assert yourself, be sure to mind your delivery. Standing up for yourself at work is a good thing, but losing your job because you got salty with your boss is not. Sometimes, all the situation needs is a well-timed “no” or for you to come through with the receipts when someone tries to throw you under the bus.
Don’t spare someone’s feelings at the cost of your own – Just because someone loves you, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of hurting your feelings. Often, it’s the people we are closest to that have the most power to do so. We often avoid tough conversations because we don’t want to upset anyone, but that will most likely lead to you harboring negative feelings and thoughts about that person.
If you’ve ever avoided having a conversation with a roommate and six weeks later, you hate the way they drink coffee, you know what I’m talking about. As uncomfortable as it may be, having a conversation with a parent or a sibling or close friend about what they’ve said or done will ensure that you feel better and that your relationship is not damaged.
Don’t be afraid to say no – We live in a world of yes: “yes I can do it.” “Yes, I’d love to.” “Yes, I will.” Sometimes, no is the hardest thing to say. We’ve been so conditioned to acquiesce that even a two-letter word is difficult. But, saying “no” is necessary to preserve your well-being. If your coworker asks you to handle a project because they don’t want to do it, say no. If your friends invite you out but you’d rather stay in, say no. If your sister asks if she can skip wearing makeup on your wedding day because she doesn’t like the way it feels, just say no.
Never feel guilty for standing your ground – Because we’ve been chastised since childhood for any non-ladylike behavior, when we finally break that cycle and actually stand up for ourselves, it can be uncomfortable at first. You may beat yourself up afterward for what you said, or try to qualify your words or actions with “what I meant was” or “I’m sorry.” If you’ve stood up for yourself as best you could and in a manner befitting the situation, then you have no reason to feel guilty. Standing your ground is as much about what you do during the situation as what you do after.
Don’t apologize if it’s not needed – As women, we spend so much time apologizing in situations where it’s not needed. Don’t apologize when asking for a raise. You don’t have to say “I’m sorry but I really need the money to pay my student loans.” You’re not sorry, you deserve it! Saying “I’m sorry” takes time away from what you should be saying. As journalist Sloane Crosley writes, an apology “sound[s] like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.” When you feel yourself about to apologize, ask yourself if you’re apologizing for something you’ve done or for asking for something you want.
Now is the time to make a change. Now is the time to stand up for yourself without guilt. Now is the time to stop being a lady and start being a woman.