Early in my career, I was the only woman on the executive team at a start-up internet company. While it was the opportunity of a lifetime to learn how to grow a business from one employee to 100, my position also served as a lesson in how to hold my own with men who were 15-30 years my senior.
The boys' club was the dominant force in most start-ups I worked at and these four ideas helped me keep my boundaries without being aggressive but assertive in a powerful way.
Treat men and women equally.
Quite often people get caught up with the labels and forget that there is a human behind the title. Whether your title is Executive Assistant or CEO, the human holding that position has a past, insecurities and conditioned behavior that has nothing to do with you or the position. Don't get intimidated by people based on their title. While it is expected that you respect your superiors, you don't have to be submissive to them. Respect goes both ways and you also want superiors who respect your wisdom too.
Only a bad leader gets caught up in their title and uses it to intimidate or bully you. If you keep your boundaries with a bully, they tend to back down or get replaced.
Trust your instincts.
You may find this amusing that I worked at an online bridal company and there were only men in senior positions. They all had their MBAs or other advanced degrees and years of experience in other industries, none of them had experience being a bride, bridesmaid or planning a wedding. I have to admit I was a bit intimidated being so much younger then all these "experienced" men but I kept speaking up until I was heard. I had one idea that skyrocketed our client acquisition rates and the company was finally feeling some momentum.
Don't let your good ideas go to waste. Your idea could be the one that saves the company and the jobs of many others.
Know that people are not upset for the reason you think.
Over the years I had many people get upset with me, a business decision or when they were passed on a project they wanted. Whenever there is an enormous outburst or anger from someone I knew that it was not about work. There was something else going on, they wanted to feel needed, heard, accepted and even a part of a group.
Don't immediately respond if someone is in a heightened emotional state because they are not rational. Have them take a walk and return when they've settled down so you can have a reasonable discussion. Often times, they realize they were way out of line and it resolves itself. Other times you get to talk it out at a lower decibel and find common ground which leads to a deeper respect for one another.
I had a conflict with a new female colleague who was the second woman on the management team. It was a very competitive environment and we had our differences in how things should be done. I invited her to have a face-to-face instead of going back and forth with email. Email cannot convey emotions and can be the source of many misinterpretations. Expressing calm energy in person can actually soothe others and bring them to a place where you can connect in an honest way. I knew she was dealing with establishing her own power and our compassionate but direct exchange made a more constructive team environment.
Know when it may be time to leave.
Work takes up a majority of your life, you have to love it. No job is worth having anxiety and emotional upsets all the time. No amount of money is worth your peace of mind. If you don't feel you are being respected or feel a workplace is toxic, it may be a time for you to look elsewhere.
When I was faced with so much stress in the start-up company I asked myself some hard questions about the direction of my life. I ended up changing careers and eventually getting into coaching and personal development. Through this crazy start-up experience I fell in love with the idea of entrepreneurship and I realized that I am happier being the one to lead.