I Practised Being Assertive To Men For A Few Days & Here’s What Happened

Do you work in an office of mainly women? If you do, I’m jealous. This year I spent six months in an office with a ratio of 40-odd brilliant women to two lovely men and it was bliss. Not once did I find myself having a ‘fake chat’ – you know, that wide-eyed, nodding dog, not-really-listening-just-shooting-lines-of-banter-at-each-other chat. Instead I had genuine conversations where I was thinking and building on the task we were discussing rather than doing my best rendition of ‘woman at work’.
Previously I’d worked in a male-dominated industry where I’d constantly felt the need to prove myself as an uber woman, the quintessential cool girl: smart, funny & FUN!, chilled, slim but an eater, up for banter, a team player, a hard worker and not too emotional. Now when I’m in offices filled with men I try not to revert back to being a performing monkey who bends and stretches her behaviour around what the men in the room expect. It takes constant vigilance. A few years ago, a list of nine ‘good statements for women to practice’ went viral after @vegbby tweeted it (and it was subsequently endorsed by Twitter doyenne Chrissy Teigen, no less). Evidently the list resonated with lots of people and racked up over 100k retweets, so I thought I’d put them into practice and see how I fared.

1. You interrupted me. I’m not finished talking.

"Exac…" my half-formed word hangs in the boardroom air, ignored. I try again. "Exactly what I was…" and trail off. Getting the room to listen today is challenging and I can’t help wonder whether this is correlated to the fact that I’m often the only woman in a meeting room with six men. Sometimes being the only woman on a project means everyone is deferential to me and other times it means I’m left out of the conversation. Either way, in male-dominated industries, my gender always seems to matter in some way and in this meeting it’s rendered me invisible. I don’t say, "You interrupted me. I’m not finished talking" because I still want to be liked. I’m a woman after all.

2. No.

Now this I’ve got good at saying. There was a time when I used to think that my worth at work was being the one who would pull an all-nighter or whip up a deck over the weekend. Then I had a baby and availability was stripped from my arsenal and I learnt that I do better work when I’m not strapped to a desk 65 hours a week. I’ve set boundaries. If I need to leave, I leave. I say no to meetings at 7pm. I don’t pander to panicky managers. And I call bullshit on faux deadlines.
This week I also say "no" to being the magician’s assistant in a meeting, refusing to get out of my seat when stuff needs to be pinned to the wall. I often have to catch myself from immediately volunteering to do secretarial tasks at work and just let the expectation hang there.

3. That isn’t funny.

No, colleague: how racist your father-in-law is, isn't funny.

4. That isn’t appropriate.

"Please don’t wheel me into a boardroom so there are more women 'representing', it’s not appropriate." This is awkward. My male colleagues understand there’s a gender diversity issue so they’re trying to address it by encouraging me to get involved but I’m left feeling that my worth is a diversity quota and calling them out on it leaves them feeling like they can’t win.

5. I already know that.

I love explaining things a little too much so didn’t need to pull this one out of the bag. I apologise to anyone this week who really wanted to say it to me.

6. That won’t be necessary.

The unnecessary offers stopped when I hit 31, disappointingly. I don’t know whether to be sad or relieved (mainly relieved if I'm honest!)

7. Leave me alone.

See above; men don’t harass me anymore. Instead, I tried this out at my son's nursery. They always call me rather than his dad even though his dad drops him off and picks him up. I’m the one they email to sign a form. I’m the one they text to tell me he’s not eaten any lunch. CALL HIS DAD!

8. You’re making me uncomfortable.

When five 40-year-old men banter about a sketch show from 1998, making me and a young female in the room feel like we don’t get comedy or understand ‘funny’ because we can’t join in their banter, I feel uncomfortable.
When a colleague nonchalantly says "gay, trans, whatever", I feel uncomfortable. I call this one out and we end up having a good conversation about labelling and empathy. It reminds me that not every confrontation has to feel confrontational.

9. Stop ignoring what I’m saying.

If I said "stop ignoring what I’m saying", it would sound whiny. If a man said it, it would sound aggressive. Somewhere in the future, someone is saying those words unclouded by gender. Until then, I’m not going to say that sentence, but I will say this: the serially ignored aren't going to have the guts to speak out either. Look around you and if you think there might be someone who isn’t being seen, lend them your voice until they find their own.
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