It’s important to behave in a way that earns respect as an entrepreneur in order to create partnerships and new business opportunities – but as a female entrepreneur, the question is vital. Studies have shown that investors shy away from female owned businesses, and that sexism in business in general is still alive and well.
I could write my first post for HerSaga on any number of hacks or tips for your business, but that wouldn’t be true to my experience as a female entrepreneur, or to the experience of many others. I’d rather address what to do about the big elephant in the room: sexism. In this article, I want to explore the four most important things to do to gain respect as a woman in business.
Project Feminine Confidence
I qualify this first tip with the word “feminine” because I think that sometimes businesspeople associate the attributes of confidence with the qualities of masculinity. Physically taking up more space, dressing in pantsuits, speaking loudly – traditionally, they’re associated with domination, androgyny, and assertion. The problem here is twofold: first, by valuing traditionally masculine traits as indicative of self-confidence, we send the message that femininity is weak and masculinity is strong. Second, we force women to deny some of the traits that can help them to perform at a very high level – traits like relationship-building and collaboration, gaining acceptance via persuasion instead of commanding, and nurturing long-term growth over short-term profit, to name a few.
The trick is to project confidence while being true to who we are as women. Caroline Turner makes an important distinction between three aspects of femininity – looking feminine, acting girly or seductive, versus leading in a feminine way. It’s the last point that women entrepreneurs need to develop.
Some easy fixes I always recommend: eliminate submissive vocabulary, like “I’m just wondering if this is the best choice” (do I need to excuse myself for doubting you if I think you’re wrong?) or “I think I’ll have the cobb salad” (can’t I just be certain about what I want and ask for it?). Sit with elegance and maintain eye contact when speaking. If you’ve studied dance or martial arts, use that poise and fluidity of movement when presenting, or even just when walking down the hall in your office.
Going a little deeper, try finding strong, feminine heroines or archetypes from religion or popular culture and channel their qualities. Some of my favorites are Joan of Arc, the story of how the Hindu goddess Kali defeated an army of demons, or queens from history like Nefertiti. Heather Havenwood has great resources on how to cultivate feminine confidence for female entrepreneurs over at her podcast, Sexy Boss (she stopped producing episodes but this episode on the power of being feminine is priceless), and on her website.
Keep talking if you’re interrupted
Studies show that in professional settings, men talk about 75% of the time compared to women. Kieran Snyder found that of all the interruptions happening in a given conversation, 70% of them happened while a woman was talking, even when the group talking was only about 40% women. This is doubly bad – there are fewer of us, but men still get more time to say what they want. In the same study, the writer found that of the women who did interrupt others, they were all at a senior level in their organization.
Why does this matter for women seeking respect in business?
You can’t be respected if you’re not understood. And you can’t be understood if most people don’t allow you to finish the sentence you’re saying. An interruption is a way of communicating, “I know you’re in the middle of a thought, but what I think is more important than what you think.” And if only senior level women have mastered the skill of interrupting others, it suggests that in order to advance beyond a certain point in our careers as women entrepreneurs we have to stop tolerating interruptions at the same time as becoming more willing to interrupt others equally, regardless of their gender.
That’s why I simply talk over anyone who’s trying to interrupt me. I continue my sentence until I’m done speaking, and then I listen to them. They usually figure out that I’m not going to let them get away with cutting me short after two or three instances. If I have something to say, I value my opinion just as much as the other person’s right to speak – which means that I get to finish first.
Learn to Delegate
Regardless of our gender, we are all human beings with the same 24 hours in a day. But perhaps because we’re more flexible, or more used to there being greater demands on our time if we don’t live in a household where duties are shared fairly, women can naturally tend to take on more than they can handle. We may want to please everyone, or we may think we need to come across as ultra-capable if we’re combatting prejudice in our own corporate environment.
To gain more respect in business, women are uniquely advantaged by our ability to connect and create relationships – as long as they use those relationships to delegate tasks. By delegating work, we give subordinates and colleagues a chance to shine and we build relationships with people in our own organization. As an entrepreneur, this extends to building business partnerships as well. Often, someone else has an existing solution to your business needs (increasing sales, expanding your reach, etc) and they’d be happy to partner with you if you can find a win-win solution. They’ll respect you for the value you bring to the connection, and will be more likely to bring you value in the future too.
Don’t laugh at sexist jokes. Ever.
Women are often pressured to just smile at sexist behavior or ignore it, particularly in the street. In business, this has to stop if we are to be respected. One of the best ways to make it stop is by refusing to laugh. Stare instead, pointedly. I’ll never forget board meeting when someone at a previous workplace of mine made a sexist joke about how Yahoo had been buying startups once its new CEO, Marissa Mayer, took lead of the company.
“What’s the first thing a female CEO does?” he asked. I was the only woman in the room out of a group of six people.
“Go shopping!” All the men in the room laughed. I kept my face as still as stone, and stared right at him.
Everyone quickly realized that it was not funny to me, the only female, to make fun of another female’s qualifications for leadership. The room got quiet.
“Well, it was just a joke,” he sheepishly explained.
“Yes, I know. Can you explain to me why you think it’s funny?”
I wasn’t a boss in this situation – I was actually this person’s subordinate, but I didn’t care. I was willing to cause a few uncomfortable minutes to everyone in the room because the joke itself was not only insulting to me, but also to their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and to any other future woman they would work with. I know from that day on there were no more sexist jokes in the office, and I didn’t lose my job just for not laughing at a prejudiced joke, either. It’s my hope that at least one of those men thought twice about telling a sexist joke somewhere else.
I’ve got lots of great tips from my experience in marketing and sales on four different continents, and I hope to publish more of them on HerSaga in the future. For now, if women entrepreneurs reading this article can follow these four steps – project feminine confidence, keep talking if you’re interrupted, learn to delegate, and don’t laugh at sexist jokes – I think it will create huge waves of acceptance for women in business everywhere.
About the Author:
Jennifer Roberts is the CMO and Co-founder of Ekipa.co, a software development marketplace bringing together quality teams and clients from around the globe. She’ll be speaking at the I/O conference in Kochi on March 5th and giving workshops in Trivandrum on March 10th. You can register here.