The Tightrope: Why Women Don't Speak Up at Work.
Back in the early 2000’s I was working for a theatre company that created ESL focused children’s theatre productions in South Korea. Yes, Barb, that’s a real job. I was freshly out of college, and a 17-year career as a rule following, straight-A getting, good girl. I was also 1) in a country I couldn’t find on a map and 2) alone. So, I did what I did best: kept my head down, did good work, and listened to my boss without question.
One night over drinks, my boss told me that when his contract was up, he would love to see me take over his role, I just needed to speak up more.
Around the six-month mark I started to find my footing in the country and in the company. I took on more responsibility, made friends, and regularly spent half my paycheck on AAA quality fake designer handbags bought from an elderly Korean couple who sold them out of their apartment in black trash bags while communicating only via walkie talkie. Don't worry, a memoir is in the works. I also took my boss’ advice and started asking more questions.
I had ideas, suggestions, and critiques so I shared them, even if they were of my superiors. It felt good. It felt..adult.
Then, suddenly, my boss announced he wasn’t renewing his contract and in-house interviews for his position would be starting the following week. I was stoked. It was my first chance at leadership, and I knew he wanted to give me the job. It was in the bag and that bag had a silver C for Chanel on it.
My interview went a little something like this:
Me: Thank you for meeting with me. Here are sixteen ideas on how we can improve our quality of company life, work, and creative output AND put more butts in seats at our shows.
My boss: You know, Jessica. You’ve really changed. You used to just be so...easy. Just ask Jessica and she’s on it. Now, I don’t know, honestly, you can be difficult.
Me: I’m sorry, am I not subservient enough for you anymore? Are the quality of my ideas diminished by the volume and frequency of my speaking them? Are you threatened that a twenty-three year old woman with a fierce pixie cut and an almost real magenta Birkin bag has plans to fix what you could not? Or do I just make your dick feel small?
At least that’s what I said in my head, to my shower wall, and in the bathroom mirror for the next six weeks. In the moment, I’m pretty sure I mumbled something like, “Thank you for your time,” before drowning myself in a bottle of cheap wine with “Fruits of the Forest” in the title.
In Speaking While Female, Sheryl Sandberg calls this phenomenon, “the tightrope.” At work, women are either barely heard or they’re too aggressive. Follow the “good girl” rules, and you’re told to speak up. Speak up, and you’re difficult.
Being a woman isn’t walking a tightrope: it’s walking a tightrope backwards, in heels.
In her article for www.themuse.com social worker and performance coach Melody J. Wilding discusses, How to be More Assertive at Work (Without Being a Jerk).
Here are 3 common situations & how to deal:
Getting the Team Behind Your Plan: The Assertive Approach
State your case in a way that acknowledges others’ perspectives and back up your ideas with factual reasoning, rather than emotions. You can successfully contribute value to the conversation, but not at the cost of making other team members feel unvalued. For Example: "That's a great idea, Melissa. What if we did it in six months rather than in three, that way we can collect more data and be better prepared to plan for the next fiscal year."
It's Time for a Raise, but Your Boss Tells You It'll Have to Wait: The Assertive Approach
Because you respect yourself and your need to be compensated fairly as much as you want to understand your boss’ reasoning, you don’t let your bruised ego get the best of you and lash out. Instead, you ask for more clarity on the company’s future and define tangible goals and targets that you can review when you revisit your salary request down the road.
A Member of Your Team is Underperforming: The Assertive Approach
In a private meeting, you clearly communicate why his work isn't acceptable, pointing to his failure to satisfy core procedural requirements, but are careful not to take aim at his personal qualities. Harnessing your emotional intelligence and empathy, you invite him to let you know if there is anything else going on. Perhaps he’s struggling with personal issues that are detracting his focus from work. Or, maybe he’s not clear on your instructions. To keep projects on track and better your relationship, you schedule a weekly meeting to check in and create a channel for clear communication.