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7 ways I’ve learned to assert myself as a young woman at work

Working in finance and consulting, I’ve encountered my fair share of people who didn’t take me seriously.

7 ways I’ve learned to assert myself as a young woman at work
[Photo: Nattakorn Maneerat/iStock]

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that, as a woman in finance and consulting, I’ve worked for a series of male supervisors. Given that women hold only 9% of senior roles in venture capital, 6% of senior roles in private equity, and 16-25% of management roles in the major consultancies, odds are good that most young female employees in these professions will be managed by older, male managers. (They’ll also likely be white, since there are fewer people of color in senior-level consulting roles.) Because of the gender imbalance, these women may find themselves to be one of a handful of women at their company.

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Being the only female employee in a company or on a team presents some unique challenges, especially if you aren’t taken seriously or seen as “one of the guys” in the same way that your colleagues are. I certainly found this to be the case at my first job out of college. As the only woman reporting to my boss and the youngest person at the company, I found that both certain coworkers on the company’s investment side and my boss (a man in his mid-forties) shut down my attempts to contribute to discussions and belittled me in minor, but ultimately hurtful, ways. On a handful of occasions, my boss—who, it should be noted, was the one who’d hired me—even told me to stop talking in front of others during meetings.

Unfortunately this first job isn’t the only place where I’ve been treated as having less intellectual weight due to my gender and age. These experiences have given me the chance to refine some strategies for standing my ground, even in positions where I hold relatively little power. Of course, it’s unfair to have to employ these techniques at all, and some of these strategies require you to take on additional emotional work. But, in an imperfect world, I have found these tips to be effective and hope they’ll benefit others in similar situations.

Reiterate your point

First and most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s incredibly important to stand your ground when asserting ideas. This can be especially challenging for young women who are often taught that being too pushy might mean getting labeled “difficult,” “bossy,” or, worst of all, “bitchy.” However, it’s incredibly important to practice expressing your opinions, even in the face of limited support.

I’ve found that simply repeating an idea or contribution (with minor rephrasing or recontextualization to avoid repetition) until it’s acknowledged is sometimes the only way for your voice to be heard. I have, on multiple occasions, been in meetings where I suggest an idea or ask a question, only to have it ignored—and then brought back up again by someone else.

Invariably, that “someone else” has been male. And they’ve been praised for their “great insight,” “excellent contribution,” or a “fantastic question.” It’s very frustrating, and it happens to women in the workplace far too often. Ensuring that your ideas are heard from your mouth is one of the best—and frankly only—ways to prevent others from co-opting them.

Be overprepared

For a young woman in male-dominated spaces, it’s easy to be underestimated. Being overprepared for meetings and ensuring that you’re the most informed person in the room is one of the most effective ways to correct the misperception that you aren’t qualified to make meaningful contributions.

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Push back

Find a way to push back where possible. Often, a simple “Why do you think that?” or similarly worded question will do the trick. As it turns out, workplace bullies, just like schoolyard bullies, are usually caught off guard when their target pushes back, even a little.

For me, allowing workplace bullying to slide affected my sense of self-worth and impacted my career development and professional confidence beyond my first job. Looking back, I’ve realized that workplace condescension shouldn’t be tolerated in any context, and that those who experience this practice should feel confident raising these issues with HR, rather than tolerating them. Realizing that no one—regardless of their position in the workplace—should get to treat others poorly is a lesson that I, at least, took far too long to learn.

Identify your strengths and leverage them

Joyce Guan West is a sales consultant and coach in the HireClub coaching network, who works with entrepreneurs, executives, and sales leaders. She suggests that young people focus on identifying their key strengths. “For me personally, I’ve always been emotionally intelligent,” she says. “I understand the relationships people have with each other and pick up on the subtle details of a situation in a meeting room or team, which makes me effective at building relationships.” Once you identify these sorts of skills, see how you can leverage them.

Develop your voice

When you carry yourself with confidence, you become much harder to ignore. “It’s difficult for people to dismiss you, pass you up, or undermine you if they respect you and if you have a strong presence,” says West. “That’s something I think a lot of women aren’t taught to do growing up.” As a career coach, West has seen both male and female clients’ careers benefit from simply developing their confidence and bearing.

Find allies

Build alliances with other women both inside and outside your company who can serve as mentors and career champions. “Developing relationships with other women in your organization is so powerful,” says West. “Just like men are giving each other access to special opportunities, women should do [the same].”

Personally, I’ve found that other women have been valuable in providing tips on navigating compensation, negotiation, and workplace dynamics. Because women often experience these issues differently, they can offer valuable perspective on these topics that many men simply can’t. This is true both for more senior women, who can draw on their longer careers for insights, and in my immediate circle of friends.

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Sharing resources with other women is also incredibly valuable. In particular, I have a number of friends who work in the healthcare space with whom I share thoughts on industry news, event invitations, and more. By sharing our connections, we’ve all benefited from expanded access to resources and larger networks.

Be persistent

West emphasizes the importance of persistence in asking for opportunities, noting that in many cases, “there will come a point when you’ll eventually wear people down.” To boost one’s efforts in this regard, she suggests networking internally. “Make friends in the organization and try to get the inside track. It’s certainly not fair, but finding ways to join those [on] the inside track is a good solution.”

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