- Sometimes when women stand up for themselves, they are labeled aggressive, or self-centered, even bitchy. As a result, women may be more reluctant than men to take issue with a decision in the workplace that is unfair or that affects them personally. They may want to be seen as a team player or perhaps they are a bit intimidated by an existing old boy’s network and are trying to stay under the radar. Or perhaps they simply are unsure about how and when to speak up.This isn’t a problem exclusive to young women just beginning their careers. Many women with years of work experience still struggle with standing up for themselves, their rights, and their ideas.
Self-advocacy requires a specific skill set. Like other skills, these can be taught, learned, and used successfully.
For example, if you feel your opinions aren’t heard or are discounted at work, you can learn to be more effective. In a group setting when a discussion ensues, speak up early. It’s hard to enter the conversation if you remain silent too long. Watch how others, especially men, interact around a controversial topic or put their ideas forward. Many will compete for floor time, and they can be quite direct, easily dismissing or challenging the ideas or statements of their colleagues. Better yet, watch how a woman you admire handles workplace interactions and how she manages to get her opinions heard and included. Does she adopt the same methods as the men? Does she make thoughtful and cogent arguments? Does she use disarming humor? If you know her well, ask how she became so comfortable with heated discussions, conflict, and confrontation.
While you will need to develop your own style, observing the way colleagues interact can give you an understanding of the methods and boundaries acceptable in your workplace.
If an issue involves disrespect or unfairness in the way you are treated, the situation may best be handled in a private discussion with your colleague or boss. You should confront the problem as soon after the event as you can, but not before you have a chance to get your thoughts together and your emotions under control.
There are some general guidelines for addressing a difficult work situation that requires self-advocacy:
•Choose your timing
•Think through your argument or concern in advance
•Decide what you want or what you want resolved
•Plan your opening statement (Don’t start with an apology like “I’m sorry to bother you,” or “I hate to bring this up.”)
•Ask directly for a resolution or speak directly to the issue
•Control your emotion and tone (no tears, no swearing, no raised voice)
If an issue with a co-worker can’t be resolved by talking it through, or if negative or disrespectful behavior continues, you may need to have a supervisor intervene, or you may need to speak with human resources.
If the problem is with your boss, it can be much more difficult to resolve. Asking advice from a more experienced and trusted colleague or speaking with a mentor might help you devise a plan or approach.
You may be fortunate and work for a company that has good leadership and that values respect, inclusion, and teamwork. Many workplaces, however, lack one or more of these attributes, and self-advocacy becomes critical. Being willing to stand up for yourself is always a good idea, but in the workplace it needs to be done in a professional way that doesn’t make you appear overly aggressive or whiny. With a bit of practice, you can find a style that works well for you and lets you become your own best advocate.