Even if you're an accomplished, successful woman, business communications can be a minefield--especially when it comes to gender-based encounters. I'll never forget being at the home office of one of my mentors and getting the once-over from one of his male clients. Once my mentor left the room, this accomplished male entrepreneur delivered a one-two punch: a combination of leering looks and sexually charged remarks. I blushed and mumbled a half-baked retort. On another occasion, after I had told people at a networking event that I was training for a half marathon for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a male business owner said he wanted to watch me "bounce across the finish line" in front of a whole group of people.
Happily, most male--and female--associates and business leaders pursue appropriate behavior. But for those times they don't, here are some tips that'll help you counteract, avoid or effectively deal with some of the most pernicious offenders, including toilet humor, macho swaggering and sexually charged interactions. First, here are some typical scenarios you might relate to:
Misdirected Verbal Banter
In terms of inappropriate behavior, the "old boy's network" mentality got to Stacie Francombe, CEO and founder of Get Married, a TV program and website, and Reel Creative, a video production company in Georgia. "Sometimes when I'm with a male counterpart not as high up on the food chain as myself, the owner, male clients tend to direct their conversations to the [male] counterpart, instead of me."
Susan Kullmann, managing director of DoctorGeek.biz, a web development, consulting and training firm in Claremont, Calif., encountered an overtly sexist slight. A male associate dean told her, then the director of academic technology, that he didn't think it was a good idea for a woman--her--to talk to his engineering faculty about computers. This remark was made in front of three other faculty development colleagues. And Kullmann says the associate dean had no clue he was out of line.
Rude and Unprofessional Conduct
What do you do when a male competitor literally drags a prospect forcibly away from you? This unbelievable scenario unfolded at a conference where Jennifer Connelly, president and founder of JC Public Relations, a New Jersey-based PR firm, was attempting to speak with a newly introduced prospect. Connelly says a competitor saw she was chatting with the prospect and one of his sales reps at a networking break. The male competitor walked up from behind her, grabbed the prospect by the arm and dragged him away from the group.
"I didn't know how to handle this. My face turned beet red and I felt like crying. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever consider doing anything like that," she said.
According to Michele Hanson, an active gender diversity specialist based in Austin, Texas, women, in general, don't do well with women who are above them because we're socialized into believing that everyone is equal. According to Hanson, women will do things to keep that equality, usually indirectly, through comments to co-workers or by withholding information. "Several women bosses were totally threatened by me," says Hanson, who is now CEO of ExecuInsight, her own executive mentoring and training firm. "The more I performed, the more intense the sabotage; they made life tough for me."
So what's an entrepreneurial woman to do?
Recognize that preparedness is half the battle. Whether it's in the form of an e-mail or during a water-cooler chat, if you're at the ready with an on-point remark that deals with the discussion at hand, not necessarily the actual remark that was made, you'll score major points for presence under pressure.
Try not to take it personally. Instead of getting ruffled feathers, stay focused and forward thinking. Count to 10, put a smile on your face and move on. Try to devote your energy to what you need to do during the meeting or networking event, voicing your frustrations to a trusted peer after the fact. If the offender is a colleague, vendor or client, you might want to consider discussing the situation later on, in private, to avoid a repeat offense.
Silence is sometimes the most effective weapon. Cloddish behavior will always be around, no matter how far up the ladder you go. By not creating a scene, you can actually win. Like Connelly, I've found that silence can be deadly for the erring party. After the initial shock of what happened at the conference, Connelly composed herself and rallied brilliantly--by not saying a word about what happened when the prospect returned. "We ignored what happened and continued to talk about what we do for our clients." The result: She got the account.
Take charge. Since you're running your own show, you can choose whom to do business with and whom to circumvent entirely. "For me, one of the joys of running my own business is that I can now avoid individuals and environments where inappropriate sexist comments are made," says Kullmann, who happily serves a variety of professionally minded firms.
Inform the clueless as necessary. Lots of times words tumble out before the person considers their potential impact. While, sadly, sometimes this is done on purpose, there are scads of situations when it's an accident. When you find you need to deal with inappropriate behavior or comments, approach things directly and swiftly, and with tact.
One example of how to begin this conversation could be, "I wasn't comfortable about the way things went at the meeting. I'd like to talk to you about we can work together in a constructive way, to our mutual benefit." Or try, "I'd like to talk about what happened a few days ago. It was an uncomfortable situation for me. I'd like to hear your side and see how we can work through this."
Whether you do business across the globe or in your own hometown, part of your success depends on your ability to communicate around potentially uncomfortable verbal and written encounters. Use these tips and practice your approach, staying true to your own comfort zone, and you can improve the odds of winning in any communications scenario.