Changing History to Herstory

We all know bias and discrimination should be unacceptable in the workplace. But it happens. It takes brains, heart, and spirit to change the trajectory of those moments from history to herstory.

Allison stood at the front of the room and felt her stomach drop to her toes. She had worked in the technology industry her entire 20-plus-year career, gained significant experience, and had credibility and knowledge beyond many of her colleagues sitting at the table that day. She is a well-spoken, educated, competent woman, working in a primarily male-dominated industry. Through the years, Allison rolled with the punches, smiled through the chauvinistic comments, and took part in scotch and cigar and golf events to stake her claim as a “player” in the field. And until now, she generally felt respected and admired for her work.
In a flash, her confidence dropped as a well-respected member of her team, Richard, angrily barked, “What is it about you women?—you’re all crazy!” In that split second, Allison’s credibility and confidence were at risk, through no fault of her own.
No, this isn’t an episode of Mad Men, nor did this event occur sometime in the 1960s. This happened earlier this year, as she stood in front of a room of 13 male colleagues, explaining an innovative approach to business management. Though her ideas pushed against the “norm,” they were solid, backed by research and case studies. Allison knew this, as the head of the exciting initiative, and was prepared for this presentation and her response to the questions and objections she knew would come. But she was not prepared for this outlandish outburst.
Her colleague asserted his strong opinion, and whether he was trying to be funny or perhaps had some other reason, one thing was clear in that moment: Gender disparity still exists.
Many respected, strong women—from her mom to Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah—influenced Allison to “lean in,” “take her seat at the table,” and be strong in these moments. She knew what to do, but at the same time, her natural stress response was just the opposite. On the inside, Allison started to crumble. On the outside, she knew to “never let them see her sweat.” Oh, yes, even Secret deodorant advised her on what to do when faced with adversity.
In that moment, Allison regained her confidence, stood tall, and took a deep breath. She gauged the reaction of the other participants in the room, and felt their embarrassment and tension. She relied on her years of experience and her inner strength to respond to Richard, clearly and confidently: “I can understand your skepticism about this new approach, Richard. In fact, when I first started researching this method, I also questioned its technique. Would it be helpful to you if I shared the details and data supporting this initiative now, or after the meeting?”
Suddenly Richard backed down and said he’d read the research on his own time. Others breathed a collective sigh of relief as the tension was broken. In her response, Allison regained her credibility, re-established her confidence, and continued the meeting. Though it felt like an eternity, it was, in reality, only about a two-minute exchange.
Be Centered and Focused
How did Allison know what to do? In these stressful moments, it’s important to rely on skills that keep you centered and focused. To avoid a defensive-sounding reaction, take the time to think before you respond. Use that time to calm your mind and find the words to diffuse negativity and hostility. Bring the conversation to a more neutral and positive place. Here’s how:
  1. Breathe: To stay mindful and present in these stressful moments, it starts with your breathing—once that is under control, the rest more easily falls into place.
  2. Stand: Plant your feet firmly and stand tall, rooting yourself into the ground like a tree. Align the back of your head with your tailbone. This automatically will straighten your posture, push back your shoulders, and make you appear taller and more confident.
  3. Position: If you can, take the power position—at the head of the room—which will help the audience perceive you as a leader.
  4. Listen: Maintain comfortable eye contact. Listen carefully, and avoid making any assumptions about the question or the objection being asked.
  5. Respond: Neutralize any hostility or embarrassment by acknowledging the emotion behind the statement. Try not to take it personally and find a way to empathize.
  6. Solve: Offer options that keep you in control of the meeting. Do not give up, give in, or walk out. If all else fails, politely ask if a meeting to discuss the issue after the presentation will help.

Step by step, we can all prove our strength by going high when others go low (thank you, Michelle Obama). We all know bias and discrimination should be unacceptable in the workplace. But it happens. It takes brains, heart, and spirit to change the trajectory of those moments from history to herstory. And as Allison continued to her next meeting with the senior leadership the following day, she felt stronger and more confident than ever.

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Jodie Stewart is a consultant at Exec|Comm, a global communication skills consultancy. Stewart joined Exec|Comm in 2013 with more than 20 years of experience in Learning & Professional Development. Her extensive background in training and client relations in technology and health care give her the capacity to understand business from many perspectives. She brings real-world experience, and a strong understanding of competitive business markets to her clients and the classroom. For more information, visit