Gaining Respect As a Businesswoman


No matter how skilled or successful women may be, their male colleagues may not treat them as the professionals they are. Shaunti Feldhahn offers advice on how to be taken more seriously at work.

Dear Shaunti,

I am back in the workforce after ten years as a stay-at-home mom, and I know my experience juggling kids has prepared me well for my new project manager job. After all, before 7 am each morning alone, I have a husband and three kids to get fed, clothed, and out the door before racing to make our daily staff meeting. My female colleagues totally “get” that I’m prepared for this job, but I need to make sure my male colleagues take me seriously.

Over the last few days, several of my key colleagues have asked how I was doing with managing several projects at once, and I said I was doing great. I usually explain what I have to accomplish each day as a working mom to show that these projects are nowhere near as stressful. But they’re still treating me more like “the little woman” than an equal professional and it is making me mad. How can I gain their confidence?

- Good Juggler

Dear Juggler –

Your strategy is well-intentioned but has backfired on you. I know this is going to sound harsh, but you’re still acting like a stay-at-home mom multi-tasker, just a stay-at-home mom multi-tasker who is now in an office instead of a household.

But doing a great job in an office environment requires a lot more than just the ability to handle all the work thrown at you. It requires the ability to read the culture and manage how you’re perceived, so you’re taken seriously and seen as the skilled professional you are. It sounds like you are very aware of that fact, but not very aware of what it takes to get there – especially with your male colleagues.

So here’s a quick primer. According to my research about the expectations of men in the workplace, men simply don’t want to hear about a colleague’s personal life. In the minds of most men, in fact, when you leave home, drive across town, and walk through the office doors, you are no longer in the world of children, spouses, hectic mornings, and everything that comes with it. Instead, it is almost like you’re on a different planet; and on Planet Work there’s only one focus: your job. In a way, Planet Home Life doesn’t even exist during those hours.

So as wild as your daily “circus” may be sometimes – and as much as it truly has prepared you for your multitasking work job — you need to know that oversharing about your balancing act to your male co-workers might not be the best idea. The best way for you to be taken seriously is to show them that you are able to handle the balancing act at work while never mentioning your balancing act at home.

The reason you’re being treated as “the little woman” is that you are communicating like someone from the world of home, motherhood, and personal stress rather than communicating like someone on Planet Work. Many men in my research have also told me that when female co-workers “drag” their personal lives into the office it puts up a barrier and makes it very difficult for a man to relate. It is like you’re speaking an alien language that simply doesn’t belong.

You also need to know that your strength of multitasking could even be viewed as a weakness. Men can assume female co-workers are “distracted” by something that intrudes from personal world. After all, because of the way the male brain is wired to focus on one thing at a time, if that man were to get a personal phone call at work, he might find it difficult to get back into “the zone” a few minutes later. Women’s brains, of course, allow us to hang up from the call with our husband and immediately jump right back into that document we were updating. But many men simply don’t realize that, because it is often not the case for them.

Bottom line: No matter how skilled or successful we as women are, we may not be perceived that way unless our male colleagues see us communicating in a way that stays almost entirely focused on business. Especially when we are just getting to know our colleagues.

So right now, as you are still being evaluated, you might want to go a bit above and beyond to be seen as all business. That doesn’t mean being cold and hard, though. You can still be warm, friendly, and personable without being seen as personal. If you get a personal call at work, step into a hallway and take it on your personal cell phone. If you’ve had a hectic morning or are overwhelmed by what has happened at home, take a moment when you pull into the parking lot to take a deep breath, clear your mind, and get prepared to focus on the tasks at hand without mentioning to any of your male colleagues what a crazy day it has already been. When communicating in full-business-mode with your male co-workers, they will then engage, collaborate, and give you respect.

You’ve heard about the need to be “fully present” when you’re at home to show your family that you care, right? Well, ironically, it works the other way too. Being seen as fully present when you’re at the office (even if you personally know you are always available to your family too!) will create a stronger connection for you there, as well.

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