how can I be more assertive at work?

A reader writes:

Every since I was a small child I’ve been praised for how nice I am, how likable I am, how good I am with people. In many ways, this is a positive thing. I think of it as a skill that takes effort, but is very useful. However, as I’ve started working professionally I’ve run across a problem. I have a really hard time telling people when they are being awful. I can do normal job-related criticism fine – “please make sure you proofread for typos next time,” etc. – but when it comes to more emotionally turbulent conversations or anything with conflict, I completely freeze up. I have whole conversations ready to go in my head, but I can’t get them out because I know it will hurt people’s feelings and that goes against every fiber of my being, even though I know those people need their feelings to be hurt because they are being awful!

I want to move up in my field, and if I succeed in my goals I’ll end up being responsible for several hundred employees. Logically I know that even if people like me less in the moment, they’ll respect me more in the long run if I can have tough conversations and be firm when necessary, and the people that will resent me are people I don’t want to work with anyway, but how do I convince my mouth and my adrenaline that conflict isn’t something to be avoided?

For example, the last job I worked on, the supervisor directly above me either didn’t remember or didn’t care to know my name and instead called me “baby girl” the entire time. I thought about what to do and decided the next time he said it I would reply, “Actually it’s Jane,” which seemed like a clear shutdown without anyone who heard it being able to accuse me of overreacting as would happen if I said “that’s misogynistic, you asshole, enjoy dying alone with four ex wives who hate you,” which was my internal monologue. But when it happened, I just froze up, and couldn’t do it because my adrenaline started going crazy. How do I stop that or work through it and say what needs to be a said in a confident, non-panicky way without feeling like I’m going to die?

I work in an entry-level job a creative, heavily male-dominated field that is infamous for its sexism and its nepotism. It’s a giant part of the culture to rely on word of mouth, and hire people based on recommendations rather than resumes, so being liked and keeping professional relationships alive is a really important skillset, especially for a woman, but I don’t want to be treated like a doormat and I want to be a leader and it feels like this is holding me back. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

The crux of this is to figure out why calmly asserting yourself feels so rude to you.

It’s definitely true that lots of people have trouble navigating particularly awkward situations, but “hey, please call me Jane” is straightforward enough that the fact you’re going adrenaline-crazy makes me think there’s something pretty deeply rooted happening here.

I’m curious about what type of communication you saw modeled in your family when you were growing up — and what lessons you learned about how you should talk to people. Any chance that the parent you identified most closely with wasn’t especially assertive on her own behalf either? Or that you were taught as a kid that things went more smoothly if you didn’t advocate for yourself? Or even that you were outright penalized for asserting yourself?

It might sound like overkill to suggest therapy, but what you’re describing speaks to fundamental ideas about your value and about what you are and aren’t allowed to bring to your interactions with other people. It really might be worth digging into some of the underlying beliefs here with a therapist, who can help you figure out where you picked up these beliefs and how you can get rid of them.

But meanwhile — or if that sounds totally off-base to you — there are some concrete things you can do on your own as well.

First and foremost, it’s important to realize that the picture you have in your head of how these conversations will go is probably really different than how they’ll go in reality. Very, very few people are going to blow up if you say “Actually, please call me Jane” or “hey, can you turn your music down while I’m on this work call?” Those aren’t inflammatory requests, and they’re not going to sound like attacks or like crazily presumptuous demands. It might help to think about times you’ve seen other people make similar requests, and really focus on the reaction they received, which was probably not disgusted indignation or hostility. They probably received responses like “sure, sorry about that” or “yes, of course!” — and you will too.

Also, it’s worth thinking about the emotions you’re bringing to the situation. Sometimes when people are reluctant to address a problem, they let it go on for so long that their irritation builds and by the time they do speak up, they’ve become far more frustrated than the situation really warrants. That makes it feel like an even bigger deal in their minds, and they’re more likely to sound confrontational when they finally do say something. But if they’d just addressed it matter-of-factly when the problem first started, it never would have gotten to the point of feeling so adversarial. So speaking up sooner rather than later can actually help these conversations feel less fraught.

And speaking of things feeling adversarial: If you don’t have a lot of experience speaking up for yourself — or good models for how to do it effectively — your internal calibration for tone can be way off. You genuinely might not realize that these conversations can be calm and matter-of-fact, and that can be a huge problem because tone really matters! When you assume that it’s going to be a Big Deal to the other person, and when it feels risky and emotionally fraught, or when you’ve let something go on so long that now you’re really pissed off about it, your tone is more likely to be confrontational. That makes the other person more likely to react accordingly … which then of course will reinforce your reluctance to speak up in the future.

But when you genuinely believe that what you’re saying is no big deal — that of course you have the right to ask to be called by the correct name or to ask someone to keep it down while you’re on the phone — your tone is more likely to sound calm, matter-of-fact, and even cheerful. And if it is, the other person is more likely to respond in kind.

If you know someone who gets this right — who calmly speaks up without coming across as a jerk — pay attention to how they do it and what kind of response they get. Plus, by paying attention to their tone, their wording, and their timing, you’ll be able to call on that model in the future when you need it.

One more thing to keep in mind: Most reasonable people actually want to know if they’re doing something that bugs you. Wouldn’t you be mortified if you found out that you’d been inadvertently annoying your co-worker for months and she hadn’t told you? Most people would be. So from that perspective, it’s actually a kindness to speak up about this stuff (as long as you do it politely).

And of course, when it comes to people you manage, it’s much more than a kindness: if you avoid those conversations with them, it could end up affecting their performance, their evaluations, their raises, and their professional reputation. Most people want their managers to be up-front with them when those things are at stake.

Ultimately, though, when the potential for even mild conflict is causing this much worry, it’s almost certainly less about the specific conflict at hand and more about something a whole lot bigger. So really do think about therapy, as an investment not only in your career but in your quality of life too.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 142 comments… read them below }

  1. Liz T*

    I actually think you’re downplaying how fraught the “baby girl” situation is. It’s not like her boss is accidentally calling her “June,” and saying “Actually it’s Jane” is just a simple correction–this boss is demonstrating that he doesn’t care about verbally respecting the women he manages. I think LW had plenty of reason to believe that correcting him could go badly for her. People can get VERY defensive (and then offense-ive) when their behavior is criticized that way.

    I want people to speak up in those situations, too, but I feel weird pretending that it’s irrational to not.

    1. OP*

      OP here,
      I think I wasn’t quite clear enough in my letter. I wouldn’t have a problem correcting someone who just got my name wrong. That’s no big deal. It’s almost all stuff that directly related to sexism that I’ve had a lot of anxiety over and eventually just not corrected. I wrote this letter maybe two ish months ago, and since then I’ve gotten moved from one position to another because “they needed a boy for all the heavy lifting” and then gave him a raise. A producer gave me a massage when I was filling out papework, and an art director called me C*nt when I relayed him some simple instructions. I work as the lowest level in TV production, and I know a lot of it’s just the culture and I want to push back, but everytime I try I just get so freaked out.

      1. Liz T*

        Yeah exactly. I think it’s totally rational that you’d be afraid to speak up in those situations. The “you” in my comment was AAM, not you the OP.

        1. Liz T*

          Though now I’m not sure if you’re question to AAM is “How do I be more generally assertive at work?” or “How do I deal with rampant misogyny at work?”

          1. OP*

            My original question was titled something “how to be braver at work” but yours is probably better, lol. Therapy isn’t never bad advice and it’s definitely something I’m open to, but I am annoyed at myself for not being clearer about what I was asking!

            1. Jesca*

              This sucks, and I have been there. But you can use some of the language for boundary crossing behavior especially with the creepy touching (I really do recommend this from a personal me-to-you kind of thing as I have personal experience with this, because the massage touching will likely lead into more very dangerous situations like stalking, quid pro quo, cornering, threatening, so on and so forth. Usually when they cross boundaries like that, they are just testing the waters to see how far they can push their position of power.) But aside from this, the only thing I can say that I could do was literally just try to survive this environment if you want to stay. Because, even if you put up forceful boundaries, they will just treat you worse because now you are the “unstable” woman and you have no backing for anyone to stand up for you. I mean there are idealistic ways of dealing with this, and then there is the reality of dealing with it. I will say I eventually left the company I was working for (but not after reigning down hellfire on them with the home office HR, but there again I at least had that backing. Without it, there would have been no repercussions). It will all come down to what your tolerance level is. I will say, that experience stuck with the rest of my life, and to this day i am still weary around male coworkers in general. It is not intentional, but being young and isolated as I was, it was scary! I am so sorry you have to deal with this!

            2. Reader*

              OP. that is totally understandable and not weakness. I imagine that it can take many weeks and loads of feedback to get your question here to the point that really matters.

            3. Annonymouse*

              Something I found helpful was taking up martial arts – karate.

              In a good school you would learn how to set boundaries (in a physical sense) and defend them which translates to other areas of your life.

              The key is understanding that it’s ok to have boundaries, reasonable to uphold and defend them and to practice that in an assertive way until it feels comfortable.

              You’ll still be a nice person however you’ll be showing everyone else you respect yourself enough to stand up for yourself and that earns other people’s respect too.

          2. Myrin*

            Yeah, that follow-up sounds like a problem that, while certainly feeding into the problem OP wrote in about, is much broarder, much more infuriating, and much less on the OP’s end than what’s in the letter.

            OP, I’m so sorry you’re in that situation – FWIW, I’m a pretty assertive, loud, and straightforward woman and I’d find an environment like the one you describe absolutely unbearable, in case that makes you feel any better.

      2. Purple snowdrop*

        I have nothing to suggest but I just want to reassure you that that… is awful. And yeah, fighting back against that culture is a) hard and b) I suspect something you won’t be able to do much about as a single person.

      3. The Ginger Ginger*

        OMG – those additional examples are so beyond the pale that I’m not surprised your intimidated into not speaking up. That’s how institutional sexism works, unfortunately. Are there any other women in your company that have a senior position to you that you respect/admire and who would be open to you asking for some advice on this? Would knowing how they handled (continue to handle) it be helpful?

        But also, just ugh, that is so beyond the line, and I’m so angry on your behalf.

        1. OP*

          Yes and no! There’s a lot of awesome women I’ve met working in the industry who I’ll talk to about that stuff, and everyone is agrees its awful and shouldn’t happen, but the truth is, most women get off set really quickly after being production assistants, so for a lot of the shows I’ve the majority of the women onset are all young 20s production assistants, and maybe four or five women who have seen it all, and then like 40+ dudes. There are some sets I’ve worked on that have a lot more parity, and those are definitely much better environments. Also, by stereotype and in my limited experience, all the really bad shows have been reality shows, and scripted shows I’ve had a lot better environment. There tends to be two types of advice: “ignore it” or “don’t take people’s shit”. But it’s kind of just on you to figure out which category you’re going to fall into. I was trying to be a “don’t take people’s shit” person but without much success.
          But I do keep an excel file with the names of everyone who’s done something sexist in my presence so I know not to hire them or recommend them in the future.

          1. Nolan*

            “But I do keep an excel file with the names of everyone who’s done something sexist in my presence so I know not to hire them or recommend them in the future.”

            I love keeping tabs on awful people, but wouldn’t recommend keeping an actual list, a mental list is better, as it can’t wind up in the wrong hands. But if there are too many jerkwads for that, definitely make sure your list is secured somewhere not at work and also offline. Definitely don’t want something like that getting out, no matter how much these guys don’t deserve your goodwill.

            1. Jesca*

              You do not want anyone on that list to see this list! Retaliation comes in many forms. I had my tires slashed, my work equipment stolen, was completely ignored, and was told by the resident HR person that somehow maybe I was smiling at too many people and they were just taking it the wrong way. If you keep this list, then hide it and hide it well. People never realize how quickly these situations can turn!

              1. Camellia*

                Smiling at too many people and them taking it the wrong way = slashing tires and stealing equipment = your fault? O. M. G.

                1. Jesca*

                  Yeah. Exactly. Thankfully my boss from outside of the area was appalled. There was a lot that was appalling. HR at corporate didn’t see it the same way our HR rep did either.

                  Unfortunately, I do live in an area where some parts of counties are really like stepping back into the 60’s. I don’t think a lot of people really realize that this shit does still exist. I remember working with interns a few summers ago who were like “what? women are equal in the work force now. My mother has done very well.” Yeah? So have a lot of women I have worked with and know personally. But every one of them who had to work in this area have experienced institutionalized sexism in the work place.

            2. Anna*

              It’s unlikely to get into the wrong hands if OP has it on a computer at home, tucked away in a folder labeled “Grocery Budget” and saved as “Grocery Budget 2010.” Precaution is good; paranoia is unnecessary.

              But don’t save it to the cloud, OP. :)

              1. Jesca*

                Paranoia .. interesting that you see my comment that way. Listen, people do real world things to other people every day and get away with it. If you are documenting the sexist acts of coworkers who go as far as to touch you in semi-sexual ways, you better damn well be paranoid about that information you are collecting and who will find it. I know that even throughout history in this country that while people understand that institutional sexism exists and has existed, many people are very ignorant to the consequences of “standing up for yourself” in those environments. It is a real risk.

          2. Marillenbaum*

            I admittedly don’t know a ton about TV production, but I have been listening to the podcast “Happier in Hollywood”, which is hosted by two women who are TV writers and executive producers (highly recommend, by the way!) One of the first things they said–in the first episode, in fact–was “Say ‘fuck’ in a meeting”. In essence, they argued that it was a shorthand for showing you can hang. Yes, it stinks, and frankly people shouldn’t be sexist glassbowls to you because it’s wrong, but it sounds like a field where the incentives are so out of whack that no one really prioritizes sane/ethical management. Good luck!

            1. Specialk9*

              Hunh, I work in a male dominated corporate industry, and I’m really careful who I curse around. I’ve noticed that many men in male dominated industries hear the s-word and interpret it as “oh good now we can use the c-word and be super creepily graphic about f-ing a bunch of women, and sexually harass you”. I curse like a duckin Marine at home, but not around men at work, not unless I get squeaky clean vibes from them for awhile.

          3. Observer*

            The Excel file a great start. Please expand it, though. At minimum, add place, date, action and current title of the person. Preferably also a note of who witnessed the behavior and what they did.

            One thing that comes up a lot in these types of cases is the excuse that “we didn’t have ANY idea.” And, often enough that’s not true, but how can you prove it? If you have a list of all the people who saw / heard the problem behavior, that changes things.

            1. Specialk9*

              Yeah, keep it at home, not at work. Include day, time, summaries, and exact quotes. This is building a case.

              Just so you know, OP, this is not ok behavior. You are facing deliberate gendered harassment, intimidation, and bullying. By managers, no less! That’s the behavior that took down Roger Ailes and continues to mow down Fox managers and talent. A toxic culture is incredibly destructive.

              But let’s be really clear. Alison already said she mis-read your question and doesn’t have time to address the real systemic discrimination.

              So here it is: YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. YOU ARE NOT THE SOLUTION. You don’t need therapy (unless you want to work through the impact of being systematically illegally harassed) to be more assertive. You are reasonably scared of people who are using their positions of authority to scare you, intimidate you, and shut you up – because of your gender. You do not need to fix yourself to make these terrible people act like good people. That is beyond your ability or range of control, and isn’t your problem, it’s theirs.

              Others have said that not all tv studios are like this. Realistically, you need to get out. You may want to find another field entirely.

              It’s your call if you hire a lawyer and try to get a big settlement on the way out. They would deserve it if you did.

                1. Marcy Marketer*

                  I was slightly surprised you didn’t mention the gendered language in the example, at least in passing. It seems like something you’d normally make note of, not to mention that usually the kind of people who would use that language would also be the kind of people to not take a direct request to stop well. I also kind of suspected it was more than loud-music-without-headphones issues when the OP kept saying the situations she had a hard time being direct in were when people were “being awful.” Not to criticize, but just to say that I don’t think the letter was totally innocuous.

            2. Nolan*

              You don’t want anyone to know about the list though, as Jesca mentioned above, if the people on it find out it exists, all hell could break loose. If she tries to call a witness out about one of these issues, they also likely won’t be happy to know it exists. This kind of thing is great for knowing who you don’t want to work with in the future, but not good for tackling current workplace issues

        2. LJL*

          I’ve also been in a male-dominated field most of my life, and that is so very far from acceptable that it’s not even in the same universe. The little stuff I’ve ignored. But the massaging…I have dealt with that by saying, “please don’t touch me” and escalating up as necessary. A firm “stop it NOW” has worked for me when other things haven’t. Not loud, just firm. Practice if you think you need to. And the “c”…. wow…just, wow.

      4. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ah! Yes, I read it as asking about how to be more assertive in general, not specific to sexism. I thought the “baby girl” example was just one example that happened to be related to sexism, but didn’t read you as saying that you were asking about sexism specifically! Re-reading it now, I’m still reading it the same way I did originally!

        1. designbot*

          yeah without the followup examples I interpreted “baby girl” as the boss maybe even fishing for a correction, purposely using something he knew wouldn’t fly.

        2. nosy nelly*

          But now that you see she wants to improve her response to sexist comments/situations specifically, would you change your response?

        3. OP*

          Sorry! I wasn’t clear enough. When I wrote you I was really frustrated with myself for ignoring people who were treating me badly, and I felt like I wasn’t being the confident, capable person I try to be. But as more and more stuff happened, I realized all the issues I was having felt less like a me problem, and more like a them problem. So I still want to work speaking up more in the moment when someone is doing something shitty, but I feel less guilty now about letting things slide, getting a paycheck and just remembering who I don’t want to work with again.
          Although honestly, some of those jobs were so stressful I could definitely use the therapy!

          1. Observer*

            This is actually one of the reasons I still think that therapy might be a good idea.

            You have NOTHING to feel guilty about. And any time a supervisor who calls you something like “baby girl”, that is most definitely a HIM problem, not a you problem! That’s something I would have said even before reading your follow up. The fact that you felt guilty for not having a perfect come back for outrageous behavior, and needed reassurance that this is not a “you” problem makes me sad, and a bit concerned.

            Just as with any victim of abuse (and what you are dealing with IS abuse) for your health and long term success, you need to be able to really embrace and act on the realization that 1. When people act like jerks and down, that’s a THEM problem and not a reflection on you. 2 Failure to respond in the moment to shocking and outrageous behavior is not guilt-worthy or a reflection on you. 3. You need to find the responses that work for you, guilt and self-castigation free. and 4. Hurting the feelings of a person who acts like such a jerk is not something that should bother you or deter you, much less make you feel like you “will die”. To the extent that you pander to their feelings it should be as a result of your decision that this is something that is to your benefit, not panic or the kind of fear you describe.

            1. Specialk9*

              I agree with the description of this behavior as abuse. I don’t know why, but it can be both difficult and liberating to hear one’s situation labeled as abuse. But that’s what this is.

          2. Liz Lemon*

            I think this is also just how institutional sexism (and all those other -isms) work. You’re made to feel like systemic problems are a “you” problem. Your reaction to all of this–having trouble speaking up, feeling like it’s your fault, not even knowing how to ask for help–sexism is designed to produce exactly those results. So go easy on yourself!

            I have three fantastic, brilliant friends who are women and at the same level of our careers (not entry level, but not yet management, either) and pretty ambitious/driven. We’re all in different industries, but because of these other points of crossover we’ve been a great support to one another. We even have monthly wine & skype dates to talk about the Work Issues we need advice/perspective on. It’s been a really powerful thing for me! Maybe you can create something similar in your life?

            Best of luck. You sound like a rockstar.

      5. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Ugh, that’s terrible. I think it’s very challenging to deal with such ingrained sexism, and sadly trying to fight it on your own could have career consequences for you until you’re in a position of more power. In the meantime, look for your allies – other women, including women above you, as well as men who don’t engage in this behavior. Try to gather together people to push back on this misogynistic culture collectively so it’s not you vs. the whole establishment.

      6. SarahKay*

        Wow! That’s just appalling and you have my deep sympathy. I’m afraid I have no experience at all with the industry so can’t give any good advice, just best wishes!

      7. Fluffer Nutter*

        Oh goodness, that’s all beyond the pale. I thought I was the only person on the planet who actually gets super adrenalized at small “conflicts.” Maybe biofeedback or meditation would short circuit the physical response? If anyone else has had success with this, please respond. Now, in your workplace it’s understandable you’d have anxiety as it seems a reasonable request could cause escalation from the insipid buttwads you work with. I beat my head against the wall in a male dominated industry in my 20’s. Realized you’ll never force someone to respect you, even if you deserve it. Went on to do quite well in a different male dominated field, FWIW. Good luck!

        1. Junior Dev*

          Exercise helps me work out the stress of workplace sexism. I wouldn’t want to train myself out of feeling anything about it but it is useful to be able to keep your thoughts inside.

      8. designbot*

        I would ask what “heavy lifting” entailed specifically. If there was something they were unhappy with in your performance it’s worthwhile to know what to work on, and if they put it off as more of a culture/fit issue when pressed that tells you something too.

        1. OP*

          It was quite literally just to lift heavy things. They moved all the entry level guys to that department, and moved all the entry level women to snacks and the office, and then gave the guys a raise because they were doing more work than they’d originally been hired for. It wasn’t done out of malicious, the guy who did it ended up recommending me for other jobs and told me I should be proud of the work I did on the show, but I was still out $20 a day because he went men= strong.

          1. Myrin*

            That’s so aggravating! (Especially for those of us who actually are physically strong women – I did weightlifting for ten years, worked in that same gym for five, and my mum is a massage therapist with killer upper arms whose strength I inherited.) I hope they end up with at least a couple of guys who absolutely suck at lifting the heavy things, it would serve them right. :|

          2. designbot*

            Are you union by any chance, and would they maybe have something to say about the “men = strong” assumption?

      9. Almost A Retiree*

        I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’ve worked in television for almost 30 years and I can assure you that not everyone in the industry behaves like this — but some shops can become a pressure cooker that turns out a lot of toxic stew. I’m sorry you’ve landed in one. It’s not the culture of the entire industry but we do seem willing to put up with the “artistic temperment” of basic jerkwads more than anyone should.

        In the short term, find a cognitive behavioral therapist who can help you learn to reduce your confrontation-triggered anxiety to manageable levels and give you pointers on developing strategies to respond in the moment in ways that are comfortable for you. Contact HR to get contact information for your company’s EAP and make an appointment. Since you sound like you’re just starting out, this will benefit you for a long time in your career. We need more young women like you.

      10. Nolan*

        OMG, what a nightmare! OP, that must be an excessively intimidating environment to work in. Are there any local women’s organizations for your industry? To battle/navigate sexism of this magnitude I think you’re going to need some allies and mentors. This issue is so systemic to your company that one person by herself can’t take it all on. And even if your company proves to be totally committed to awfulness, you can at least network and hopefully find a better opportunity with people who don’t suck.

        On the adrenaline side, I did manage to train my body to delay the adrenaline rush that leads to panic when driving conditions get squirrely. It was almost 20 years ago, but I think I pulled it off by intentionally getting into low-risk dicey situations like fishtailing around an empty, snowy parking lot, and that helped to normalize the event that would trigger the adrenaline rush, and eventually delay it. So now when another driver does something dangerous, I can react calmly, until the jitters hit about 30 seconds later. Sadly I’ve never been able to convert it to conversations, as I sometimes have the same panic reaction to unexpected conversational issues. If you have a friend who’s very assertive, maybe see if they’re willing to do some confrontational role play with you so you can get some practice and normalize these kinds of conversations.

        1. Is it rain (on the parade)?*

          I agree with the effectiveness of intentionnally getting into low-risk dicey situations. If you cannot beat them, join them! As a female veterinarian specialized in cattle obstetrics, I had to deal with a variety of off-color remarks. In the work environment described by OP, taking an elevator with one wrong person could definitely be dangerous. In my line of work, HR was non existent. My style was to escalate immediately to outrageous levels, and put them in the same unconfortable situation as they put me, with the same smiling can’t-you-take-a-joke face. Or an apologetic did-I-just-say-that face, if I went myself too far. As an example, when asked “As a women, you can of course mind babies” The answer would be to shoot back “Oh yes I love to casserole them!”. “Do you suck?” / “Oh, I bite first!”. Against unwelcome touching, I would immediately start a violent kicking or elbowing move towards the crotch or head and then stop the move mid-way with an apologetic “Oh sorry, you surprised me. Do not do that as I have uncontrolled reflex reaction”. The surprised then contrite face is crucial. Their shock, disgust, or knees wringing can be quite enjoyable, especially when colleagues find the comeuppance hilarious. The trick is to handle the incident as banter that got carried away (But they started it! Was it so bad? Oh you mean we should ALL behave?). However, it can horribly backfire. Be careful to be in a public place with decent witnesses at all times…
          And when I froze in panic, I would vent later with assertive friends trying to find a script or scenario for next dicey situation. That would help me deal with the frustration. I left the job after ten years, tired of beating my head against the wall in a male dominated industry as Fluffer Nutter elegantly wrote. I still use my repartee skills with the occasional sexist situation, with knee-jerk alertness.

      11. Observer*

        But Allison is right. None of this is REMOTELY acceptable, and fact that you are so freaked out at taking even such a low key and face saving (to the jerk) as saying cheerfully “actually, that’s Jane”, that’s a problem that goes beyond the sexism of the environment.

        Oh, and please document the explicit sexual discrimination and harassment you are dealing with. If (I hope WHEN) you decide to push back, having clear and dispassionate documentation is going to be very, very helpful.

      12. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Wow, this is so deeply vile and not ok! Rampant sexism is definitely a different school of problems, but I agree with keeping a log/Excel (just keep it at home and not someplace where people can later access your computer; i.e., don’t keep it at work).

        OP, it’s honestly not your fault that you’re not being “braver” or “more assertive.” This kind of low-level violence (and high-level sexism) is designed to make you feel stunned and disempowered. I’d be more concerned if it wasn’t shocking, because that would mean it’s happened so often that you’re becoming immune to its badness. I don’t have much more to offer except my sympathy and rage that you’re stuck working with these troglodytes.

      13. TV producer*

        28-year-old lady here. I started as a PA in the industry, now working as an associate producer/producer in reality. I’m probably going to go against the grain of most people’s advice and say that there are some things that are messed up and unfair that you’re going to realistically need to ignore because it is the nature of the industry. I’ve turned a blind eye to treatment I received as a PA because I knew my odds of changing it from a position of such little power were slim-to-none, versus me enacting change from higher up the totem pole like I am now.

        I am curious what jump you would be making that would take you from PA to being in charge of several hundred people. The most likely jump on the office side of TV production would be to become an assistant coordinator, then a coordinator, then a manager, then line producing. One doesn’t jump from PAing to line producing, so you’ll always have a chain-of-command that you’re working within until you move to the top. The most memorable, best coordinators I’ve had were direct without being rude and on top of their game. I’ve had coordinators that were more worried about being nice, people liking them, and going out drinking with the crew every night than they were about doing their job well–don’t be the this person. To be honest, the best coordinators I’ve had weren’t even particularly likable on a personal level, so I would stop worrying so much about being liked by everyone on the crew (also impossible.)

        The biggest mistake I made when I started as a PA was worrying about how nice I was, how likable I was, and how good I am with people. That is naturally my personality too, but people also need to respect you. Once I stopped being demure because I was too scared to be assertive, I moved up in my career. It is important to be likable (I’ve gotten jobs I wasn’t qualified for because the people hiring had worked for me before and liked me) but you also have to be able to make assertive decisions and have people respect them, especially as a coordinator.

        A more seasoned woman mentor gave me the following advice when I was moving to LA, and I think it might be helpful to you. She works in film, and within film she does SFX and rigging for art dept., so she’s in a doubly-male oriented field:

        Use your connections. People love being able to send somebody a good person. You don’t even need a lot of connections. One well respected connection and a bit of a resume is all you need. There are a lot of hacks out there. Useless people who persist through nepotism and inertia, and clueless people who think this industry is glamorous. Your referrers give somebody a good person, that person owes them a favor.

        Cut nobody’s advice into stone. Including mine. The world changes, and the whole point of the entertainment industry is to fight boredom. Novel situations abound off camera as well.

        Don’t rely on getting people to take a chance on you. People take chances only when they’re desperate. If somebody takes a chance on YOU deliberately, they are responsible if you suck. There is way too much money riding on things in this business for people to be willing to take that kind of risk for somebody.

        Be really good at something that too few people are good at. It takes time in the game to find out what this niche is for you. Ideally you want something with a high barrier to entry that you’ve already cleared. (For my mentor, it was: Being female in Effects is an advantage once I was established, because I can defuse macho-man conflicts just by existing, and bake things to grease the wheels without it being weird, and do plant-ons on actresses without it being weird. But nobody wants to hire women for the job because it’s very physical and mechanical. Barrier to entry.)

        Be concise and direct, especially with men. Go through every email and text 3 times (just for a few weeks, to get into the habit) cut out anything that doesn’t need to be there. This includes any time where you’re talking about feelings or explaining yourself without being specifically called upon to do so. Everyone is busy, don’t take more of anyone’s time than you need to. Not so much that you’re cold though… give yourself time to find the balance. One specific: Don’t tell somebody there’s no pressure to write back. They know.

        Do your thing, be a self starter, and it will serve you better. Have people you can go to for advice and references, but don’t lean on them, don’t make them responsible for you. Until you’re established enough to not actually NEED a mentor, anybody who offers has better than even odds of wanting something nefarious in exchange. Don’t go this route. It gives you an expiry date. If you do have to play along in order to keep a job, however, document it, and jump to another ship as soon as you can gracefully do so.

        It takes time to break in and join the work up. They can smell desperation, and it’s like blood in the water to the sharks, and the unwashed crackhead on the bus to everyone else. (When they talk about “fake it till you make it”, THIS is what they mean… not faking knowledge or experience.)

        Don’t try to be something you’re not, but don’t “just be yourself, forget the haters” either. Hide your major weaknesses, but cover for it by being comfortable with your minor ones. Work on those character flaws. Privately.

        You’re going to have to put up with a certain amount of sh*t; but if you put up with ALL the sh*t, you’re going to have to take it forever. Be sure to pick your battles, and be diplomatic with the battles you do pick. For example: the guy who calls you sweetheart gets a firm handshake and a very friendly “Pleased to meet you, my name is ____.” And when he tells you his name, remember it and call him by it at every natural opportunity.

        Learn the difference between “because I’m new” stuff and “because I’m me” stuff. The first gets better all on its own, the second you have to politely bulldozer. Unless they specifically make it about an “ism”, assume it’s because you’re new. Implicit bias is real, but the only way it gets reduced is by prolonged exposure to counter-examples. So it’s really a sub set of “because I’m new” stuff.

        Use your swears judiciously. Especially if you are outnumbered by men, never appear to be angry. This is hard.

        If you need to cancel on short notice, have a replacement that you can recommend who will be able to do the job as well as you can. Prepare for this by privately evaluating your colleagues and getting their numbers.

        Good luck!

      14. Word Turner*

        yeah, trust your instincts here. I used to (or more accuraely, I am trying to stop) beat myself up for how i tend to freeze up when i’m facing misogny or assault, but freezing up is the action least likely to provoke violence. You freeze up because you instinctually feel that you aren’t able to flee or fight them off. It isn’t always safe to say no in the moment. Pushing back is scary because you know what the consequences for pushing back are. You are afraid your job will be in trouble or that he will get violent. It’s important to try to push back but it’s also important to not get down on yourself for the times when you can’t push back. You’re doing the best you can with the resources you have available to you.

        You won’t always be able to push back in the moment, but sometimes you can do it afterwards by reporting it. It’s hard, though.

      15. Raleigh*

        I do respond when things like this happen, and it does not usually go well. Except once. That time I complained of an all male writer & producer team making an unacceptably sexist script there suddenly appeared a female writer for the last few weeks.

        Right now I’m in the midst of something and it sucks! I’m here to pick up positive comments so thank you commenters. And OP you’re damned if you do or don’t, so try not to stress about your reaction. Get revenge by doing your thing anyway.

    2. Kathleen Adams*

      It’s actually possible for someone to call a subordinate “baby girl” and not intend any disrespect. It’s possible (note that I say merely *possible*) that he respected her like heck but was just being inappropriately avuncular. So it’s possible that if she’d cheerfully and matter-of-factly said a couple of times, “Actually, it’s Jane,” the chances are pretty good that if he was an ordinarily decent person, he would have started calling her Jane.

      It’s also possible, of course, that he didn’t respect her. But even so, if the OP had addressed this issue (and dear Lord, is it an issue!) cheerfully and matter-of-factly and not as though he was deliberately showing disrespect, chances are still pretty good that he would have started calling her Jane. Often if you (cheerfully and matter-of-factly) call someone out on this sort of stuff, they do back down.

      1. Kathleen Adams*

        By the way, I wrote this before seeing the OP’s post above. Ye gods. So much for “not intend any disrespect,” alas.

        But I still think *pretending* as though you believed he didn’t intend any disrespect and (cheerfully and matter-of-factly) asking him to call you by your actual name might have worked. No matter how much of a sexist he is, he probably doesn’t want to think of himself that way, so pointing out to a person, even cheerfully and matter-of-factly, that he’s not addressing you appropriately often works.

        1. Specialk9*

          No, I’m sorry, there is never a non-sexist way to call a woman a girl, much less a baby girl. It’s demeaning and infantilizing. It’s either an extremely intimate baby talk term for one’s one child, or an extremely intimate sexual pet name for one’s lover. Neither are ever ok at work, and neither are ever ok with a co-worker, or really any adult woman who is not actually one’s lover.

          That said, we women have learned to pretend that there’s a realm of possible ok for sexist terms – because YOU aren’t doing it the bad way, but really I prefer X.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            You misunderstand me (I think). Of course it’s sexist, and of course it’s absolutely inappropriate at work. I’m just saying that not everybody who does so is doing it because he/she is bred-to-the-bone sexist. Some use inappropriate words out of carelessness or a social norm (e.g., in some parts of the U.S., people are pretty careless about calling people “Hon,” even in the workplace) that is wrong for the workplace; some do so out of a mistaken urge to be friendly. And some – but not all – do it because they’re sexists.

            But my point is that even if it is sexism, the person doing it probably doesn’t think of him/herself as a sexist, so pointing out that you’d prefer to be called Jane might work anyway. It’s certainly worth a try.

            1. Specialk9*

              I believe you’re saying that one can say something sexist without being sexist, or that one can say something deeply inappropriate without ill intent. I almost see your point – that there is deliberate sexual harassment, where a jerk likes being creepy and watching you squirm, versus someone who is habitually sexist and doesn’t realize it could be taken badly. So yes, you’re right – the first, deliberate sexual harassment as intimidation, is way worse than the second, habitual good natured sexism. But the second is still a big old problem. He’s still using a terribly wildly inappropriate and undermining and infantilizing gendered term, only to women.

              1. Kathleen Adams*

                Oh, Lord, yes – it’s *definitely* still a problem. Good intentions are nice, but they aren’t everything, and they don’t justify calling anybody at work “baby girl” – or “Hon” or “sweetie” or (as one of my organization’s directors used to do) “you girls” or any of that stuff.

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          I don’t like it either – like, at all. It’s just icky. Other endearments can be OK in the correct context (which is definitely not the workplace), but I cannot imagine a circumstance or a person that would make me OK with “baby girl.”

          Well, maybe my grandfather or somebody like that. But that’s it.

      2. Work Wardrobe*

        Kathleen Adams
        September 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm
        It’s actually possible for someone to call a subordinate “baby girl” and not intend any disrespect


        1. Kathleen Adams*

          We’ll just have to agree disagree. I’m not saying it isn’t disrespectful, because it is. I am saying that it’s possible for someone to use it and not *intend* it to be disrespectful. But intended or not, they need to cut it the heck out.

          1. neverjaunty*

            All kinds of things are “possible”. I mean, it’s possible that when you hear hoofbeats outside, it’s not horses, but a rare wild species of zebra that escaped from a traveling zoo.

      3. Wintress*

        What difference does it make whether they are doing it deliberately or not? Being an accidental sexist jerk becauser you don’t have the sense to recognise that your language choices are creepy and sexist doesn’t excuse you. Ignorant sexist are still just sexists.

        Why are you feeling the need to defend them?

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          I’m not defending them. Let me say once again very very clearly: Do not call your coworkers, particularly subordinates, by endearments or any cutsy nickname at all. It’s wrong. It’s bad. It’s demeaning. It’s sexist. It’s usually creepy. Don’t do it, former supervisors of the OP and for that matter all supervisors anywhere. Cut it out immediately.

          However, what good does it do the OP to just say over and over again “That’s sexist!” She already knows that. What she needs is a strategy for coping with it. And one strategy that might work is to call the offending person out on his behavior without screeching “Sexist.” Instead, act as though you are dealing with someone who intends no disrespect and say simply, “Actually, it’s Jane.” This will probably work if the person actually doesn’t intend any sexism, and it might work even if they actually are just as sexist as they sound.

          1. anathema*

            You’re second paragraph is much more helpful to the OP than by leading in with finding an excuse for the behavior. Intent or what they mean really doesn’t matter – what matters is strategies that will work for the OP and are safe for her to use.

  2. Kat*

    It’s so odd that this was the first question I saw when I got home from work because I’ve been worrying about this today, as well. I don’t think I need immediate therapy (maybe for other stuff, who knows!) but I was definitely brought up in the household where I had to be very considerate of others and never got good at putting myself first. Nothing wrong with being considerate but it’s made it hard for me to be assertive, too. So this advice was mostly very interesting to me. I need to try harder, because I am senior at work to a few colleagues and need to give them feedback sometimes. I find this incredibly hard to do and will worry about it, put it off, etc. I know I need to do it, for their benefit as well as mine, but I find it so hard! I always end up hoping they won’t be annoyed with me, even though, why would they? I think I find it very difficult to see myself as a more senior team member, so maybe I think they feel that way too. Which isn’t fair.

    Anyway, long process, but this was a timely letter.

    1. CJMster*

      I too “was definitely brought up in the household where I had to be very considerate of others and never got good at putting myself first.” I just turned 60 and am finally halfway good at speaking up and saying no when I want to. It started a few years ago when my sister got mad at me for drawing a healthy boundary, and a good friend advised me to not apologize and give in and most of all to remember that “it’s not the end of the world if she’s mad at you.” I sat with that bold new idea until it sank in, and that was the start of not caring so much what others think of me and my decisions. What do *I* think about myself and my decisions? That’s what really matters.

      By the way, my sister and I worked things out, and now our relationship is better than ever.

  3. Anononon*

    This is so timely. I’ve been having trouble being a pushover with one of the managers in my group when he makes unreasonable requests. Over Labor Day weekend we had Friday off as a company holiday and he sent me work to do without prior notice, saying it needed to be done that day. He has also sent me work on my vacation time (and chastised me for doing part of it and letting him know I couldn’t do the rest) and told me to tell other managers in the group I had to suspend work for them to complete work for him that he wanted done asap.

  4. nnn*

    A script I’ve found useful in “baby girl” type situations, if they persist in their behaviour after I’ve clearly stated my preferences: “If you say things like that, people might get the impression that you’re a misogynist.”

    In cases where I’m dealing with older people whose word choices might simply be outdated, I’ll use “In cases where your intentions are benign, you might want to choose the word X. Using the word Y might give the impression that you’re out of touch or bigoted.”

    1. Purple snowdrop*

      Oh wow thank you for giving me a script for when my dad says racist things!! Until now I’ve been too busy trying to pick my jaw up from the floor. Not terribly effective.

    2. KR*

      I’ve used this! “If you say this, people are going to think you are racist and I know you don’t think that way about people of color. You can’t say that around people ” kind of thing

  5. LBK*

    This is an interesting letter to follow the introvert letter. My main suggestion is similar to what Alison says in terms of modeling behavior after someone you know that does this well. Often when I find myself making justifications for talking myself out of doing something I don’t want to do, I instead imagine myself giving those justifications to someone I really respect and think about what they would tell me to do or how they would react if they heard me making excuses like that.

    It’s one thing to brush aside your own internal disappointment, but if you can borrow the disappointment of a mentor, I’ve found that’s much more successful at pushing me to do something. And it’s often realistic, because assuming your motivator is someone you actually keep in contact with, wouldn’t you much rather have a success story to tell them than a failure? (Also, if you don’t have any current or former colleagues like this, I confess I have occasionally used “what would Alison Green tell me to do?” as my motivator).

  6. KR*

    I’ve struggled with this as well. When I was younger my dad would tell me every time I left the house without him to be polite, like I had a habit of cursing people out or something. I really was a polite and shy kid but I was always hyper aware of any “rudeness” I might be portraying which included standing up for myself and being assertive. I still have a really hard time asking for help at work, bringing up problems, pointing out when errors are the fault of other people and not me, ect. Good luck, OP, and I’ll be watching this thread.

    1. Jesca*

      I know what you mean. My mother’s family is upper middle class. My father’s family was from a more “blurt the lines of what is illegal” class lol. So on my mother’s side (even though my mother worked blue collar), it was always about appearances. Don’t openly confront anyone other than your siblings and ONLY do that at home. On my father’s side, it was pretty no holds bar (as in it was not uncommon for someone to shoot up their brother’s house with bird shot to resolve a dispute – I am not joking). So going into adulthood, I had no idea how to approach conflict appropriately. Following this site and attending college for management helped. But still to this day I am still very conflict adverse with people I need to see everyday.

    2. Chicken Superhero*

      Just a heads up that that background sets you up for falling into abusive relationships. Not that it’s guaranteed or anything, but abusers look for someone who will be “nice” over having healthy boundaries. I had to unlearn some “nice” behaviors and get uncomfortably assertive about things that were fully my decisions to make. One abusive relationship was enough for me, thanks!

      1. nonymous*

        Coming from that type of childhood myself, I’d point out the issue isn’t so black and white. While many of the behaviors and advice that my parents gave would be good fodder for an abuser, it was also a good match for someone from a highly dysfunctional environment. For example, Dad liked his women naiive, but also took his role as protector and provider extremely seriously and was quite willing to make the personal sacrifices for that to happen. I’m not excusing the behavior, but frankly a big part of my worry regarding widowed Mom is that she doesn’t understand that people wont do her thinking for her.

    3. nonymous*

      there’s a really great master’s thesis from the mid-90s that talks about class differences and how it shapes formative experiences. I can’t recall the author’s name, but the research context was a longitudinal study following a bunch of families though routine childhood experiences, like going to the doctor. In the higher SES group it was common for parents to prep their kids for the visit to be practice for the future – the mom would ask kid to think of questions and help script and rehearse how to ask the drs and nurses. In the lower SES groups they were told to “be good” and not cause the medical staff trouble or work.

      As an adult I’ve gone back to that discussion multiple times, with different perspectives. Yeah, there’s totally the view of high SES parent prepping kid and giving them safe practice options for assertiveness. But isn’t the high SES parent practicing some entitlement too? B/c they’re assuming that little Tommy won’t be overwhelmed and reactive in a Drs office, which is the scenario that low SES parent is trying to prevent. And low SES parent is likely to be juggling other things like public transportation, tighter schedule demands and more crowded waiting rooms that could contribute to a kid being overwhelmed. I swear, the older I get the more I see the appeal of a bland homogeneous life experience.

      1. Working Rachel*

        I think you might be talking about “Unequal Childhoods,” which I’m reading right now. It’s fascinating!

  7. WFH*

    +1 for therapy. I found a therapist that specializes in workplace issues. She had a lot of really great advice (similar to AAM, even!) about how to confront icky and sticky issues at work and to keep my sanity at the same time. A lot of therapists are really focused on home life, which is really important, but finding one with a lot of knowledge about professional issues really helped me resolve issues with my personal life as well.

    1. SarahTheEntwife*

      Another +1 here! I think therapy tends to get framed a lot in popular culture as for Serious Mental Illness, but it can also be ideal for helping to examine or rework behavior patterns that aren’t a huge life-threatening problem, but still are holding you back or making you unhappy in some way.

  8. nnn*

    In terms of the actual question about assertiveness, the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell includes a section on a concept called “entitlement”, which is really more a sort of assertiveness – the feeling that you’re totally allowed to state your needs and preferences. I found this incredibly useful, because it demonstrated to me how this behaviour that I felt shy and awkward doing is actually benefits everyone in the situation, not just me.

  9. The Ginger Ginger*

    OP – I think given your additional examples, the tone is going to be really critical. Not confrontational or angry, but firm, straightforward, and matter-of-fact, and possibly repeat ad nauseum. Can we all agree that sexism is gross? And women having to figure out how to manage it is also gross? Ugh. I’m sorry this is what you’re dealing with.

    And I know you have it worked out in your head, but can you actually practice what you want to say out loud? In the shower, in your car during your commute, to your cat or roommate – anything to get those words actually coming out of your mouth, repeatedly. So when it actually comes up in real time, you can fall back on that muscle memory/practice and be confident that you already know how it feels and sounds to put those words out in the air. It doesn’t seem like a big difference – internal vs. external practice – but it REALLY is.

    1. Camellia*

      Yes, this is absolutely critical! Practice saying your responses out loud. And they don’t have to be long; sometimes shorter is better.

      I was also appalled at the ‘massage’ but am imagining someone behind your chair massaging your shoulders and/or arms. If that is the case, you could practice a rolling shoulder shrug – it’s hard to describe but kids are good at it – that ‘get off’ kind of shrug. That can be almost an unconscious reaction and not something they can (usually) complain about. If necessary you could say, “Sorry, that makes it difficult for me to type/write.” Just FYI, this has happened to me multiple times in the past and these strategies worked for me.

    2. Lindsay*

      Ditto on the practicing – if you’ve said it out loud before to yourself, or to your dog or roommate or anyone, then it will feel a little less scary when you say it to a coworker.

  10. Marcy Marketer*

    Letter writer, I want to let you know that I have so much compassion for the hard situation you’re in. I want to affirm that you don’t have a greater responsibility to confront the casual (or blatant) sexism if you don’t want to/don’t feel safe/ think it will affect your job opportunities. It is absolutely a valid choice to try and put up with it or dance around it until you feel like your career is secure enough to push back. I think you should do what’s best for you, and any of the things I am about to recommend could have serious career reprocussions for you.

    So first recommendation… familiarize yourself with Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Replacing you with a male specifically for gender reasons is illegal and you could file a complaint. There are lots of internet resources (or lawyer resources) that will help you figure out what you need to do– for example you may need to file/document within certain time frames and establish a pattern of sexist behavior. Doing work now could help you file a better case in the future if you decide to.

    Second, consider going to HR. Massaging you and calling you a C word are examples of sexual harassment and again, you could take legal action. Third, consider speaking off the record with a reporter. With all the sexism in the news lately at places like Fox, they might be interested in a first-person story– bonus if you can help get other women to speak out or get involved.

    Best of luck to you!

  11. jj*

    An easy way to practice assertiveness is to express your opinion about lower stakes items in the rest of your life. So if you’re the type of person who usually says “Oh, whatever you want” when someone asks you what you want for dinner, or what you want to stream on Netflix, etc etc…express a preference! Be assertive about wanting Mexican instead of Thai food and then it’ll eventually be easier to say “please call me Jane.”

    Side note: I have worked in TV/video production for a while now, and the gross misogyny you’re describing is not the norm. It’s definitely a tough industry, with a lot of swearwords and not excellent manners, but I’ve only experienced sexism to that extent at one of my many jobs. I think you have a workplace problem, not an industry problem. Good luck surviving and finding your next great gig!

    1. Xarcady*

      Yes, this! I was brought up that asserting myself was wrong. It was okay for my brother to take the toy I was playing with. It was not okay for me to try and get that toy back. That’s just one example. I have thousands. (And back then, I also had bruises from fighting with my brothers, because I saw no reason for them to have something when I had it first. If only that carried over to people outside the family. Sigh.)

      You need to practice standing up for yourself. And it’s a lot easier to do this when the stakes aren’t so high. You can state your preferences. You can say no when you don’t want to do something. So start practicing on the little stuff, so you can work up to the big stuff. I still find it a lot easier to stand up for someone else, but I can and do speak up for me when it is necessary.

      In the workplace, I usually deal with sexist stuff head on. (Now that I’ve got 30 years experience in the work place.) Someone calls me “baby girl,” I look him right in the eye and say, “I stopped being a girl when I turned 18.”

      Someone comes up behind me and starts rubbing my shoulders? I give a little yelp and fling my arms up–pure “startle” reaction. It’s just unfortunate that my arms accidentally hit those of the shoulder-rubber and get them completely off me. And then I’ll question–“Why did you do that?” But they can’t get upset at your reaction, because how did they think you would respond? Being startled and getting away from the touch is a perfectly normal reaction, even if it isn’t what they were expecting.

      And in addition to therapy, if you have any interest in it, try taking a martial arts course. I found that karate really helped make me physically stronger, taught me I could handle myself physically against at least some men, and gave me a heck of a lot of self-confidence I hadn’t had.

      And it came in handy when a man I knew came to my small non-profit’s office once, when everyone else was out of state at a conference. He snuck up behind me when I was looking for some paperwork he wanted, and put his arms around me. Five years of karate classes and several workshops on self-defense took over. I stomped on his foot, jabbed an elbow in his side, and after freeing myself, put a knee where it would do the most good. Oh, and yelled. Loudly. Which brought the guys from the upstairs office down in a hurry.

      I broke the guy’s foot. He tried to pass it off as an accident from working on his house, but the guys upstairs and my boss knew the truth and made sure that everyone in our small niche industry knew. Never dated anyone I met through work, but was treated with a lot of respect. Because when you know what you are doing, a 5’3″ woman can take down an unprepared man a lot taller than her.

      1. Observer*

        OMG! What an experience. I’m glad that the guys and your boss were on your side. But how awful that you needed to do that.

        The suggestion for karate and self-defense courses is excellent.

      2. Camellia*

        “I still find it a lot easier to stand up for someone else….”

        This is me. I was groomed to be a victim and through many years of struggle have managed to overcome a lot of that conditioning. So I was surprised, somewhere along the way, when I realized that I was ready to fight to the death to defend someone else when I couldn’t do that for myself.

        I actually took this and used it to mentally rehearse. I would picture something that had happened to me, the “massage” for example, and imagine I saw a man do that to someone else. Then I would take that feeling of rage and power and really feel it, examine it, see what it was like, and imaging what it would allow me to say and do. (I’m talking about realistic words and actions, not taking an ax to the offender.) Then I would imagine MYSELF in that situation and feel those same feelings. It really helped to do this exercise many times and, finally, I started having it for myself and it really helped me respond.

    2. Jillociraptor*

      Yes, this is a great idea. I had definitely gotten into the practice of not having a preference in these sorts of situations. I’m generally pretty easy-going and don’t usually have a problem defaulting to whoever is the most emphatic about something like where to go for dinner, but your “preference muscles” can atrophy! Even if you don’t really care about Mexican or Thai, just choosing one can remind you and others that you are a person with preferences. It doesn’t mean that if someone else says that they’re really feeling Thai you can’t change your mind, but it’s good to just state that you have feelings.

      My fiance and I struggle with this a lot, because he’s very aware that I have a strong tendency to just defer to whoever seems to care the most. So he sometimes avoids sharing a strong preference because he doesn’t want to stomp on my toes. It’s a super inefficient system if he’s not saying what he wants, and I’m not taking responsibility for sharing what I want, and we end up with endless “I dunno”s until we break down and just get Chipotle again :) It’s been valuable for me to realize that not having a preference doesn’t actually make it easier on others or make me seem mellow and low-maintenance; it can actually be a chore that shifts my responsibility in an interaction to others. This has helped to shift my perspective from feeling like I’m inconveniencing someone to being a partner in a conversation.

      1. KellyK*

        It’s been valuable for me to realize that not having a preference doesn’t actually make it easier on others or make me seem mellow and low-maintenance; it can actually be a chore that shifts my responsibility in an interaction to others.

        This is a really good point! There’s mental and emotional labor involved in always having to be the one to decide things.

  12. Myrin*

    OP, one advice I’d like to give you on top of Alison’s excellent script: practice, practice, practice.

    I’m a naturally assertive (and even aggressive, which is not ideal but which I thankfully have under tight control) person – I remember this from when I was a child and I can feel it within me in basically every situation that involves conflict in any way. However, I was psychologically damaged by classmates’ bullying when I was a young teenager in a way that left me as somewhat of a shell of my actual self for quite some time. I still, 15 years later, have fears and thoughts cropping up that I can easily trace back to that time, and it took quite a bit of effort, time, and outside help to get back to my old personality.

    I had to practice being myself again. I had to – and still have to from time to time – cheer myself on mentally and go “You can do it! Do it now!”. And it becomes easier and easier, a little bit every time you do it, until it becomes second nature (or first or third in my case, who even knows). The first step is always the hardest but I believe that anyone can do it and the upcoming way will be smoother with every step.

    1. CM*

      I like this advice, and I’d also point out that if you have trouble being assertive for yourself, do it for the other women around you. One woman standing up for herself emboldens other women to stand up for themselves too. Imagine if you had a role model in the office who calmly refused to be called demeaning names. You can be that for other people.

  13. Anonymous Engineer*

    In the “baby girl” example, a hypothetical kickass version of myself would say, “If you’re going to keep calling me ‘baby girl,’ how about if I call you ‘old man’?”

    1. Anastasia Beaverhausen*

      My go to response in a “baby girl” situation is “okay Daddy! or “thank you, Daddy!” which always shuts it down. Not that I’m always so quick on the draw, plenty of times it’s taken me an hour to come up with what I wish I would have said in a shit conversation ambush. I love what I read here a while back: “you are not welcome to speak to me that way” and I’ve practiced it a lot in my head so I will hopefully be able to muster it up the next time I’m barked at for no acceptable reason.

  14. J.B.*

    OP: your examples in the comments are awful, and I think you’re struggling to respond because people around you are not being normal. I do think you can build assertiveness – at first it’s hard and you’re shaky but you can build up over time. Being clear with waiters at restaurants (I’ve gone so far as to ask someone nicely to send over our waiter when we’re waiting FOREVER) is good practice. Polite persistence is also a really useful skill – as sweet as possible but “I’m just checking where you are with x” repeated as many times as possible can train people to give you what you want the first time. Also really doing your homework before you bring something up at work – being able to provide a spreadsheet or memo laying out what you’re trying to do 1) helps you think of possible issues ahead of time and 2) gives a script to work from.

  15. The Smile on a Dog*

    OP, I feel for you. I’m not particularly shy about saying what I think and yet I *still* froze up when a client put his hands on me.

    I just want to say you are not alone, you are not wrong, and to believe in yourself. I am also in a male-dominated creative field and it is never easy. As others suggested, it gets better with practice. I have a few lines at the ready should I need them. But it’s never easy to deploy them.

    My current favorite is, if someone tells a sexist joke (“joke”), I (would) say totally deadpan, “I don’t get it. Can you explain? ” That shut up a guy at a football game who yelled that one of the players played like a girl.

    Anyway, you are not alone, you are not wrong. I encourage you to find a few other women in your industry who can be supportive. I participate on a Slack channel with people like me and have found it very supportive and empowering.

    You got this!

  16. Kiki*

    I feel like I could have written this. I was taught growing up that correcting people, even when they’re wrong, is rude and unacceptable. I’m also from a “women should be seen and not heard” sort of family so I also struggle with this professionally. I can only continue to smile and nod and silently seethe for so long. Thanks for the advice, Alison!

  17. C Average*

    So much great, intelligent advice here! And yes to therapy. If I ran the world, I think I’d not only mandate therapy coverage for every human being on earth, but I’d levy a small fine on those who didn’t go! Honest self-reflection with the guidance of a nonjudgmental professional can benefit anyone.

    But that’s not really what I came here to say.

    I am going to be the first completely shallow person to comment on the sheer amazingness of the stock image. If there were a “shop this look” button, I’d be half tempted.

  18. jnsunique*

    I’m a naturally assertive woman in a male-dominated field – manufacturing engineer. Mindset here really helps. I have a few strategies that help. First, I’m a little oblivious (see: engineer). It’s easy for me to overlook small things (on purpose, I swear!), and I can turn half-hearted jokes into real conversations by ignoring the joke. Second, pick your battles. While I don’t like being told to smile, or that I must know a lot about ovens from all my time cooking in the kitchen, I don’t engage with it or worry about it. I get things done at my job, and as people I work with grew to respect me, the sexist comments faded. I’m also 37 now, and may be aging out of the worst of it. You experience a much more hostile work environment than I do (the producer massage is awful), but I think its helpful to realize that workplace culture isn’t your problem, it isn’t on you to fix it (at entry level), and you can be successful without asserting yourself in every situation. When you become more experienced you will have more political capital to spend on pushing change. With experience your comfort level should improve, which I think is critical for being assertive. And when you have confidence in yourself at your job, it shows and you can build on it. I know I excel at my job and I’m sure that it shows.

  19. Pushover No More*

    OP, it sucks that you are in such a misogynist environment. There’s a great book called “Feminist Fight Club” that has some very practical scripts and suggestions for shutting down sexism at work. What you have to deal with is pretty extreme, but I think the book could still be helpful.

    I think the rampant misogyny is more the problem here than your attitude to confrontation; that said, I heartily endorse the suggestion of therapy. Two years ago I started therapy for marriage issues. One thing it uncovered is that I have a hard time speaking up for myself, probably due to family dynamic in early childhood. While the therapy has focused on my marriage and personal life, an amazing side benefit is that I can really see myself standing up for myself more at work and handling disagreement and conflict better. I used to fume over things and let them build up until I couldn’t express myself productively–now I ‘m pretty good at calmly addressing things in the moment. More importantly, I finally feel like I’m allowed/entitled to stand my ground, and I don’t have those crazy adrenaline feelings or try to talk myself out of simply standing up for myself anymore.

    I hope things get better in your workplace soon (or you find a better one!). Best of luck.

  20. Sabine the Very Mean*

    Thank you Thank you Thank you for posting this question. This is the fundamental issue I deal with professionally and personally (and Sabine is my mean cat).

    As a child, I was corrected too often and too aggressively. I now fear conflict like the plague. My issue is slightly different than yours but results in sometimes being treated poorly, allowing to be steamrolled, and feeling like I won’t succeed as a manager who needs to really manage other people. I am in counseling now that I have insurance. She and I almost exclusively work on my assertiveness. I actually can’t quite pinpoint the true problem. What am I scared of? I don’t know. But therapy has gotten my closer—I now know that being yelled at is my ultimate fear as a result of being fiercely yelled at for something as sad as out-growing my own shoes as a child (seriously, my dad would be irate). But I am also afraid by the betrayal of my own body. I get red in the face right away, I stammer, I shake, and eventually, I’ll cry. No matter how innocent the confrontation may seem. I can’t figure out how to stop those from happening.

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      And Alison once said something like, “I’m a confrontor” or similar and I wanted to ask, how? Did you have good role models as parents? Did they really teach you emotional intelligence or was it just demonstrated daily? Did they give you strategies? I know a few people who seem to have found out those skills on their own without parent help but that seems rare.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I wouldn’t say I’m a confronter! That sounds … pretty aggressive. (I was totally a confronter in my youth though.) Maybe I’m an addresser? I’m definitely comfortable just talking about stuff forthrightly, and I’m not nearly as afraid of awkwardness as most people. My mom was great at modeling that (to a fault, really — which caused a different set of problems).

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Actually, I’ve long thought that this site is a weird mish-mash of the influence of both of my parents — my mom is extremely practical and direct, and my dad was a huge emotional softie. I’m an odd blend of the two of them, and I think it’s reflected here in a lot of ways.

          1. Sabine the Very Mean*

            Thanks for answering! I can’t recall your exact verbiage but it was essentially saying, “I speak up!”.

            1. Observer*

              Interesting comment. “I speak up” really is not the same as “confronting.” It’s a really important distinction, in fact.

              1. LBK*

                What’s interesting, though, is how many people feel like those are the same thing when they’re faced with having to speak up.

                1. Observer*

                  Yes. And it’s something to work on, for anyone who sees it that way. If you feel that way about yourself, you need to learn to be able to speak up without feeling like it’s a confrontation with all the downsides. And if you see it that way when someone else speaks up, then you need to back off and stop turning things into a bigger deal than they are.

                  If it’s not abundantly clear, I was NOT talking about LBK, but was using the generic “you”.

    2. Marillenbaum*

      This sounds like it might be an area where CBT is useful–it can help you manage some more of the physical symptoms (voice shaking, etc.) that can act as a feedback loop, ramping up your anxiety about confrontation. I’d also recommend some sort of public speaking training; I trained as an actor for part of college, and it honestly made it so much easier for me to be assertive, because if I can BS looking confident in front of 100 people, I can definitely do it in front of the 5-10 I work with.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        Thank you for that! That makes a lot of sense and I have always wanted to pursue acting, even casually. And I have always wondered about CBT for other issues as well.

  21. Typhon Worker Bee*

    There are actually assertiveness training courses that you can take that will help you role-play this kind of situation – perhaps there’s one near you? If not, maybe you have some friends (from work or elsewhere) who’d be up for trying some role playing with you?

    (Someone forwarded a former colleague a link to one such class, leading to some excellent jokes along the lines of “I wanted to go to that assertiveness course, but I was too scared to ask my boss for the time off”)

  22. Argh!*

    I have the opposite problem. I’m not a pushover at all, in a climate where at least half the staff are women who are unassertive, self-effacing, and deferential. I stick out and I just can’t suppress myself to suit outdated stereotypes (not to mention, sometimes you have to be assertive to get stuff done).

    I’ve risen to a mid-level of management, reporting to a manager who got where she is by being subservient, unassertive, and deferential to authoritarian bosses. The disconnect between those two levels is crazy-making for those of us under that dysfunctional combination.

  23. Molly*

    I had a coworker in a very sexist industry call me “sweetheart.” I corrected him several times. When it seemed he was refusing to call me by my name, I started calling him “Pun’kin”

    That worked pretty quickly.

    OP I totally hear you. I don’t know how I would have navigated working in that industry without being an extrovert and relatively confident in my position. Maybe practice with friends so it comes out more automatically?

    1. Lissa*

      Not that I suggest it but I really would be so tempted to start calling the person who called LW baby girl “Baby boy”..after all, if he’s just being friendly/nice/innocent then why would he have a problem with this? I realize that you probably can’t actually do this with someone with authority over you but….so tempting.

  24. Nan*

    I once, when I was in my 20s, had a creepy coworker call me baby girl in front of a bunch of work people. I smiled and told him if he did it again, I’d shove my shoe so far up his backside that it would never come out. He never called me baby girl, or really spoke to me after that.

    That is not a recommended course of action, though. I also cannot stand being called baby. Ugh.

  25. Beatrice*

    One thing that helps me, OP, is knowing that my reluctance to assert myself disappears when someone else needs me to be assertive. I will stand up for my friend, my kid, my husband, my coworkers…heck, even strangers!…where I won’t stand up for myself. So when something happens to ME that requires me to be assertive, I take a mental moment to picture someone else in my shoes, have empathy for that person, then react as if I’m protecting someone else instead of myself.

    I am so sorry you’re dealing with this stuff, and agree with Allison that a little therapy might be helpful!

  26. knitcrazybooknut*

    I think this has been suggested above, but two words, OP: ROLE PLAY. Role play role play role play!

    You work in television. You must know a zillion aspiring actresses. They would LOVE the chance to play the evil sexist a-hole! Let them, and play a million different versions until you’re bored with it and it holds no stress for you at all.

    Also, here’s the cheap version of therapy: Imagine the worst case scenario. What is the absolute worst thing that someone could do in response to your calm matter-of-fact statement? It sounds like you’ve had some experience with this, so use that as your starting point. Once you’ve figured out the worst thing that could happen, figure out what your response would be. Now you have a plan.

    I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. It sucks. Stay strong. You can rise above. You’re not the problem, just for the record. They are.

    1. Niccola M.*

      Yes! Roleplay the worst version. Then roleplay more moderate (realistic?) versions. Then have your partner randomly decide what version they’re going to do.

  27. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    I recommend a book. “Your Perfect right: A guide to assertive behavior” by Robert E. Alberti. The highest price I have seen for it on Amazon is under $10.00 so it is fairly cheap.

  28. Lil' Lady*

    Long time reader, first time commenter! I just wanted to say what a breath of fresh air this was to read; I’m dealing with a lot of the same emotions and hang-ups described in the letter, which are really being aggravated by a low-communication and low-accountability workplace. I reached out to my EAP a few weeks ago and will be getting a referral for long-term counseling, hooray! It was totally validating to see AAM explicitly recommend therapy, and empowering to read practical steps for in-the-meantime. Thank you!

    (Having also read OP’s additional comments about the sexism she’s up against as well, I’d be very interested in that column, too! But the response to the original letter’s frustration and anxiety came at just the right time for me.)

  29. Librarian of the North*

    I hate this for you. It brings me back to a job I had in a comic book store when I was 19. A client who was friends with the owner said (in front of the owner) “I’m not going to try to remember your name. I’m just going to call you new girl.” The owner said nothing and I replied “Well… I guess I’ll know who you’re referring to…” I cringe to this day some 8 years later. I’ve been really working on my assertiveness and what has helped tremendously is finding assertiveness “role models” who I look up to. I see how their assertiveness has only been a benefit to their lives and try to model my responses after them.

  30. AnonyMouish*

    Hey OP, I’m late, but I have some industry-specific feedback that I thought might be helpful.

    Perfect the art of the blank stare. Someone calls you a c*nt because you have late-breaking changes from a different department, you don’t apologize, you don’t get upset – you stare. The non-verbal equivalent of “what would make you say that?” Most of the blowhards in question will recognize this look.

    You laugh at this behaviour in groups. That is, if someone makes an offhand comment in crafty or the production office, where there are other people to hear, you laugh openly at them calling you ‘baby girl’ or similar. Not mockingly, just enough to let them know this is ridiculous. Bonus points if you can do this with other PAs, male or female, as this will hit commenters where they live. Unfortunately people who act like this, particularly on sets, want to come off as the cool big kids on the playground. If you give the impression they are old and out of it, or even a bit to be pitied, I guarantee this will stop. I used to think this was unkind, but now I see it as young women taking care of themselves.

    Finally – you must learn the phrase “that guy makes me uncomfortable”. If you are asked to drive someone somewhere and you really feel like it’s a bad idea, or you are asked to supervise a parking lot alone with someone you don’t want to, or something that in any way threatens your safety or your comfort level, you say that loudly, in the presence of the line producer or the most senior woman on set. Don’t allow anyone to get away with saying they ‘didn’t know’.

    You may also appreciate this article that involves director Sarah Polley talking about ongoing sexism in film & TV.
    (CW: It involves a DOP saying something horrible and sexualized to a NINE year old. Nobody is saying this business doesn’t have problems)

  31. Safetykats*

    Unfortunately a lack of assertiveness tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As people see that you’re willing to be treated in a certain way, they will tend to treat you that way more consistently – and others will treat you that way as well. So in the case of the guy rubbing your shoulders – for which there is no excuse by the way – it’s unfortunately true that if you don’t speak up (Hey, I would prefer that you not do that.) he will continue to do it. And his excuse will be, predictably, that you never objected. You can find assertiveness training classes, and assertiveness is a skill that can be practiced and learned like any other skill. I know, because although people I work with today and shocked to hear it (apparently I learned well) my very first manager sent me to assertiveness training. I work in safety, and to be effective uounabsolutely have to be able to tell people things that are going make them unhappy – but it’s true that a simple, direct, and confident delivery can actually be viewed by a lot of people as helpful rather than confrontational. I agree that therapy could be helpful, but I would also recommend looking for an assertiveness training course specifically designed for the workplace.

  32. Admin Girl*

    Not sure therapy is necessary in this case.

    Growing up in a culture where addressing issues with someone of higher status is looked down upon, it was really tough learning how to be more assertive at work. As Alison briefly mentioned, capturing the body language and tone of those you think handle the situation well did wonders for me. It took time and it felt awkward at first, but I kept at it. Once I learned how to do it with finesse, it made my job – scratch that – it made my life so much easier.

  33. RB*

    My local community college used to have an Assertiveness Training class. It was a low-level one-credit class, so not a huge time suck, and I learned some basic techniques that were useful.

  34. Amy*

    OP, I think there a couple potential levels here to unpack.

    First, from comments, it sounds like the root problem is the super sexist work environment. You should treat that as what it is–it’s not your fault, it’s not something you’re doing wrong, and (unfortunately) likely it’s not something you can fix no matter what you say to people. Sex is a protected class, so it’s worth looking into what protections you might be able to access. Also, are there any women higher up in your company who you might be able to develop a mentor kind of relationship with? If this is common in your industry, it’s likely that they’ve had similar experiences–they might be able to offer support in ways that people from different backgrounds can’t.

    Second, assertiveness. As someone with an anxiety disorder who experiences panic attacks, I absolutely understand how too much adrenaline in your system can be paralyzing! If this is a frequent thing, though, it’s worth finding ways to either moderate your reaction (so you feel less on edge) or push through it (and do the thing even though you feel awful). Personally, I’ve found that practicing will eventually lead to one or the other of those happen. It sounds like you handle normal levels of conflict fine–it’s when you get to unusually high-conflict situations that you have trouble, right? Do you have a really argumentative friend that wouldn’t mind modeling some conflict-heavy arguing with you in a controlled way? That might give you some room to get more comfortable with verbal conflict, at least. (And to be honest, any scenario that’s likely to get more conflict-y a little yelling, I think you’re better off NOT being comfortable with it!)

    Speaking of anxiety, though…third, I think it’s worth getting a good therapist. I’m not saying you have an anxiety disorder or any kind of long-term thing (maybe you do, maybe you don’t, I wouldn’t be equipped to diagnose that kind of thing even if I did know you). But this is obviously a stressful, tense work environment, and I can practically feel your tension about it bleeding off your words. Therapy can be a really good way to get some outside-observer perspective on a scenario, process how you’re feeling about it, and get some help in coming up with an action plan for addressing it.

    I hope things get better for you!

Comments are closed.