by Engager Olive Persimmon
“I work in a male-dominant industry and sometimes in meetings they talk over me. I have to fight to get my ideas heard,” a vice-president at a large bank said to me.
“When I don’t say anything, they tell me I ‘need to be more assertive’ and when I’m assertive, they tell me I’m being too aggressive or bitchy.”
“Some of the other women I work with are catty, they try to put me down to make themselves look good.”
“My boss told me to smile more. Another colleague said I need to smile less because people might think I’m being flirtatious. Now I’m obsessively thinking about if I’m smiling at the right times.”
These are all comments I heard while teaching a women’s program for a client in the finance industry. Unfortunately, comments like this come up all the time. I wish I could say these were anomalies but I’ve taught women’s programs for three years and I keep hearing the same responses. Again and again. Women who are taught to play small. Women who feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions. Women worried about being too much of something (too assertive, too passive, too tall, too small, too whatever…)
One of my most memorable comments came from a younger professional named Chelsea, “I’m 6’1 and my boss is intimidated by my height. He always makes snide comments about it. Is it okay to try to make myself smaller in his presence so he’s not as threatened?” For me, it was a heartbreaking comment because it represented how women are taught to shrink to accommodate.
I thought about my answer for a second because I knew what I was about to say would be important to Chelsea. I looked at her and carefully said, “No, it’s not okay to shrink. His insecurity is not your problem.”
It’s been a huge part of my life’s work to help women find their voices and stop playing small. I am incredibly lucky to work for a company that supports this mission. The Engaging Educator was not only founded by a badass woman, it hosts a whole staff of amazingly talented women. As a testimony of our commitment, I received an email from my boss on November 9th, the day after we didn’t elect the first female president. She told us that we were going to give away some free seats in our women’s workshops. This was our way of contributing to all the women who felt powerless and defeated post-election.
I was so excited! Another Engager, Minna Taylor and I had been designing women’s programs for years. I planned an amazing curriculum with improv-based exercises for this new class. We’d work on taking up space and using the full force of our voices. We had exercises for dealing with aggressive counterparts, exercises that addressed thoughts & behaviors that were holding us back. I carefully crafted and designed this program thinking about all of the comments I had heard over the past several years. Then I waited.
No one signed up. Not one single woman. Even though many of the seats were 100% ABSOLUTELY FREE. Finally, deep in my despair, ONE lone, brave woman registered for the workshop.
I was beyond disappointed. I teach storytelling, public speaking, presentation skills, and improv for professionals. They ALWAYS have students. This absolutely free and critically important class failed to draw students.
Perhaps it was a marketing failure on our part, I don’t know. Maybe, it’s just one more example of women not putting themselves first because it seemed selfish or unimportant to take the time to learn how to be comfortable being a woman. Maybe there were good specials at the bar. Maybe the ladies were too busy running their own companies. I have no idea. Despite this, we’re still offering free spots in ALL of our classes for women because we believe it’s THAT important.
I went to the Women’s March in January and was so excited to see so many men and women coming together, actively. It was incredible to see people fighting for their rights and the rights of other people. I know that the fighting isn’t going to stop. We’re going to have to keep fighting the next four years and maybe eight years beyond that. Maybe fifteen years beyond that.
Give yourself some tools to help you fight. Come to class. Invest in yourself.