I had initially written this piece before the lockdown but actually, now is a great time to try out some of these techniques and build your confidence from the comfort of your own home. It can be less intimidating to speak up when you’re not physically in the room with the people – a baby step for asserting yourself.
A regular discussion I have with my friends and women entering the workforce is how to assert yourself in the work place – particularly if you work in a male dominated industry. Throughout my teenage and young adult life I had part time jobs ranging from being a lifeguard and swim teacher, to being a student ambassador at university. These were roles which needed confidence and, at times, a thick skin. The comments I received as a young female lifeguard, particularly from men, were horrendously sexist, uncomfortable and humiliating. I will never forget one occasion where a group of (I would guess early twenties) men decided to break almost every rule the pool had, whilst hurling comments at me about how much water would it take to make t-shirt see-through and if I would give them mouth-to-mouth if they pretended to drown. This was loudly. In front of the rest of the fairly full swimming pool and café area. This was a defining moment for me though – I could either breakdown or I could ask them to leave the pool and centre due to continuous rule breaking and harassment. I went with the latter and when they refused, the duty manager was called and dealt with them. They were banned from the centre for life.
It’s not a pity story. This was the moment, aged 16 or 17, that I realised I had a voice that I had every right to use. It was this moment that I started to develop my passion for feminism and, without knowing at the time, was the catalyst for me wanting to do more to help women.
Flash forward to 23 year old me starting my first role as a graduate in a male dominated industry. I worked in a mixed team but the sales team I was aligned to was predominantly men – very strong-minded and confident men. I felt so nervous to speak up in meetings and very under-qualified. I didn’t know how to gain that confidence to speak up and give my opinion. I admitted this to someone I worked with who told me that I had valid opinions and needed to assert myself more.
Well, from that point on I did everything I could to make sure I had something to say and no matter how uncomfortable I felt, I pushed myself to be more assertive. The key was making sure that what I said was well founded and thought out – it simply isn’t enough to say something for the sake of it. Five years later I was described as “fearlessly vocal with well positioned opinions” and now find myself advising other women on not letting the fear keep you quiet.
But, how? I thought back to my time as a lifeguard and realised that the reason I felt able to assert myself was because I knew my stuff, I knew I had the backing of the senior staff, I was there to do a job and I knew it wasn’t right. And from that realisation, I was able to pull in my learnings and form three top tips:
- Be prepared: ahead of each meeting make sure you take some notes around the subject area and do some brainstorming on topics that might come up. If there is an agenda start to think about what you know around each point. If you know and have a good relationship with the owner of the meeting, reach out for more clarity if you aren’t sure. If your manager is going to be on the call you can also ask them for more information – a good manager should be supporting you. Then, once you have some notes, reassure yourself that you have got this. Half the preparation is telling yourself you can do it – you were hired for a reason and that reason is for your knowledge, experience and opinions. Even if that is different to your peers – diversity is a recipe for growth.
- Get an ally: someone you know can back you up in the meeting or, if you’re struggling, open the floor up for you to speak. This person should be someone you trust and can be totally honest with. It can be someone you overtly speak to before the meeting for guidance, advice and to let them know your thoughts ahead of time. If you’ve prepared for the meeting beforehand why not chat about it with your ally – “I was thinking about that meeting on Wednesday about how to increase our awareness in this area, what do you think about expanding out to try this tactic…”. Sometimes just having a person you trust in the meeting/on the call can help give you that confidence to put yourself out there.
- Challenge yourself: set yourself a goal of volunteering one idea at an upcoming meeting, tell a friend and then ask them to hold you accountable to it. This way after the meeting, they’ll be expecting you to let them know how it goes. Being accountable to someone else can really help you push yourself out of your comfort zone. They don’t need to be big challenges to begin with – start with meetings you’re more comfortable in first of all and build yourself up.
The final piece of advice I can give you when you’re feeling out of your depth is get to know your co-workers. Building a relationship with people, finding out if they have children, what their hobbies are, what they’ve been up to at the weekend etc. can make them seem more human and less intimidating. It’s much less scary to talk to people you already know because they value you as a person.
Do you have any other tips?