Monday, February 16, 2004

Strategies help combat disrespect

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Whether disrespect is intentional or accidental, women who work in male-dominated fields get plenty of it, says Lois P. Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office 101 (Warner Business Books; $19.95)

"In a white male system - actually it's any system - that system is designed to maintain itself," says Frankel, an executive coach who has written two other books about women and work.

"Comments like 'gee you know what you're talking about' or 'what is a pretty young thing doing in this kind of work,' those comments are designed to keep you in your place."

Frankel believes women should picture themselves surrounded by a Plexiglas shield where negativism bounces away.

"My clients tell me this approach really works," she says. "Avoid getting emotionally baited. Look at the comment as bait and simply don't go for it."

She suggests at least three levels of replies. Each is a notch higher on the scale of aggression:

• Wide-eyed innocence is the most benign and should be used when talking to clients or potential clients. Answer on a superficial level: "Say, 'Let me tell you what I'm doing' or 'Let me tell you how I learned this.' Those answers keep the discussion on an even keel."

• The next level of confrontation is to acknowledge expertise, then wonder aloud why the person would think otherwise. The response makes people take ownership of their statement and brings discomfort. "When women tell me they are sick and tired of these kinds of comments, I coach them to say something like that," Frankel says.

• The most confrontational response is to tell the offending individual that they apparently don't believe you are capable because of your gender, then suggest that they might "want to re-examine their stereotypes."

People will respond that it was not their intention to be offensive. That may be true, Frankel says.

"But we don't know people by intention," she said. "We only know people by what they say."

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