A Guide To Speaking Up For Yourself — Thoughtfully & Effectively

Image by Jessica Sharmin

After watching so many brave women standing up for themselves in the public arena in the past weeks—Dr. Christine Blasey Ford facing her alleged abuser before the U.S. Senate and Serena Williams calling out the continued sexism she faces in her sport—I've gotten to thinking a lot about my own rules. What do I let slide, and when do I stand up for myself and say "enough"?

The truth is that, at least for me, it's a very slippery slope. It's tough as a woman, even as someone who considers herself strong and resilient, to figure out where to draw that line. Particularly as a woman of color—and one serving as a leader in her work—it presents a labyrinth of complexity that people rarely consider.

Let's remember that women make up a little more than half of the entire U.S. population. Yet, to date, women compose roughly 6 percent of Nobel Peace Prize recipients. There still hasn't been a female president, and women make up only 20 percent of the 535 members of Congress. When we look at business, just 36 percent of first- or midlevel officials and managers in S&P 500 companies are women. And the state of affairs looks even worse when we consider the intersection of gender and race: In 2015, women of color accounted for 20 percent of the entire population, but just under 4 percent of executive or senior-level officers and managers at S&P 500 companies were women of color. As for CEOs? Just 0.4 percent were women of color.

The numbers do not lie. We are drastically underrepresented in leadership positions. And as we know, underrepresentation in any setting can easily translate to feeling:

  • Invisible: They don't see me.
  • Misunderstood: They don't get me.
  • Invalidated: They don't appreciate me.

So it's no wonder that we as women—particularly for women of color and for those of us in leadership positions—constantly find ourselves walking a thin line between calling something out and letting something slide. We're holding on by a thread to the small bit of representation we have. We don't want to risk jeopardizing it in any way. And given how often women are stereotyped as emotional and people of color as aggressive, the bias feels twice as heavy for women of color like me.

I have been in multiple situations where I experienced awkward and uncomfortable behavior. A sexist comment here, a racist joke there. Someone buys into a stereotype or takes their cultural curiosity too far. I've pretty much heard it all. A mentor assumes I'm from "the projects" when I've never mentioned anything about my home life. A boss with whom I had a great relationship casually uses the word "bitch" in a meeting. A colleague just needs to touch my curls. I'm assigned to a certain project because I'm "better with those people" or I "understand how those people think." Or more subtly, an email reply undermines or diminishes a point I've raised, and I find myself wondering if an older white man would have been addressed in the same way.

When it comes to standing up for ourselves in these situations, I get the trepidation—we don't want to be thought of as "making a big deal out of nothing" or be seen as a person "who takes herself too seriously." For me, I'm most affected when the situation involves someone I like, trust, know, respect, or am emotionally invested in somehow. I don't want to think of them as a "bad" person. I don't want to acknowledge in my spirit that they have said something mean-spirited. And yet, I must.

As uncomfortable as it may be to address, we just can't let these moments slide.

So how do we figure out the best way to respond? 

Different offenses merit different reactions.

When it comes to these difficult moments, it's important to respond in a way that's thoughtful, being mindful of the context, the nature of the transgression, and the texture of your own feelings. To decide how big or small you want to go with your response, consider the following:

1. Who is the person, and what is your emotional investment in that relationship?

If you have a well-established relationship with this person, then you may have a history you can consult and a future you want to preserve. Ask yourself what the person's patterns have been. Do you know the person to be well-intentioned or malicious? Do you want to continue to be in a relationship with this person or not?

If the person has a history of being mean and nasty, then you may not care much about preserving the relationship. So you may want to address the point with nothing more than a concise statement and just let the chips fall where they may. You may also want to make a request that you expect the person to honor. "Hey, I need you to know that when you said ____, I experienced it as _____. Please refrain from that sort of speech. Thank you."

On the other hand, if the person is someone that you want to be in a relationship with and who you feel is usually well-meaning, you may want to engage in more of a conversation. "Hey, I heard you say _____, and I was wondering if you realized that it was offensive. For me at least, it felt _____. Is that what you were going for?" 

2. What happened, and how harmful was it?

Was it questionable, inappropriate, offensive, or abusive? Abusive behavior presents an imminent threat to your well-being and requires an immediate, clear, and firm stop. Examples include emotional manipulation, verbal aggression, or physical imposition. Offensive behavior may not present the same imminent threat to your personal safety but can certainly make a social setting or situation feel less safe. These are your typical racist or sexist comments, for example. When faced with behavior that is offensive but may not necessarily be abusive, I suggest taking a breath and having a thoughtfully planned conversation that is firm but engaging. You'd be shocked at what you can help shift. Similarly, when things are questionable or inappropriate (people talking over you, tasteless jokes, etc.), sometimes a lighthearted but honest comment made to the person in private is enough to alert them to their impact.

3. When is the best time to raise your concern?

Sometimes you can easily address questionable or inappropriate things in the moment with a look of disapproval, a disapproving remark, or a brief side conversation. Similarly, for abusive behavior, the situation needs to be addressed sooner rather than later because they are dangerous. It can be extremely difficult and very scary, so be sure to find support to help you through it. Don't let it go. Draw the boundary and hold it firmly.

For less immediately dangerous transgressions that still offended you deeply, it may be better to wait before responding so you have the opportunity to sit, process, and plan. Just because you didn't say anything in the moment doesn't mean you've missed your chance—oftentimes it's helpful to be with your thoughts and feelings for a while so you can mindfully respond later when you're ready.

4. Where is the best place to ensure you'll be heard?

Does it need to be a public announcement or a private moment? Most people will respond better to a private conversation. They will be less defensive and thus better able to listen and receive what you are offering. That said, if a person has a pattern of being "slippery," of "spinning" the truth, and of doing to others what was done to you, a public conversation is sometimes necessary to clear the air, hold that person accountable, move everyone to the same page, and achieve a resolution. At that point, it becomes less about a teachable moment and more about social agreements for public safety. 

5. How can you maximize the likelihood that your experience will be considered?

What details should you mention, what language should you use, and what energy should you bring to it? Consider whether the transgression is one part of an ongoing pattern and whether you can point to other similar transgressions from the person; come prepared with those examples. It's also helpful to come prepared with details: Was there a particular word or phrase that you found unacceptable? Is there an overall tone or sentiment that you felt was being communicated that hurt you? What details can you offer to help the person better isolate what they should refrain from repeating?

You'll want to make sure you can communicate all of this in a way that is both respectful and firm. Speak with strong eye contact and clear enunciation, without getting too loud or too close. Try to come from a position of power and clarity without aggression and accusation. Practicing beforehand on your own or with a close companion can help you present your case as effectively as possible.

6. Why are you doing this?

Are you approaching it from a position of education or condemnation? Are you trying to prevent a future occurrence or work through what already occurred? Is there overlap? Which is stronger?

There is no better answer here. It is only important to be clear about what's driving you so that you work deliberately and with intention. Both require that you stand up, in some way, for what you believe and desire.

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Lastly and most importantly, trust your feelings.

Remember that all of your emotional reactions are valid and legitimate. You have a right to your feelings, and if you feel bothered, offended, or hurt by someone's comments or behavior, there is a great chance that it is worth addressing.

Despite the anxiety that it may cause me, I have never been one for keeping my mouth shut simply to avoid confrontation. I have just had to learn how to address things productively. You'll have to do what feels right and true for you. In my experience, it's only worth sucking things up for as long as it takes you to develop a productive strategy for how to call them out.

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