I decided to return to my family’s business after working in a large corporation as a lawyer, and now I handle our company’s legal issues. I’ve been back for about four years. I’m pretty savvy about how organizations work, even though a small family business definitely has its own unique culture. It’s been interesting and exciting to be a part of the business as it’s transitioning to becoming a larger company. But, as you might imagine, it’s challenging to be the only woman in the room most of the time.
I was in a meeting recently to discuss a potential partnership with one of our major suppliers. There were four men there, including our non-family CEO. As the meeting went on and it got closer to lunch, he turned to me and asked, “Okay, Liz, what are the arrangements for lunch?” I really resented the fact that he turned to me, the only woman in the room, to answer that question-and it’s happened before. I suggested a carryout and gave the order to our receptionist, but that’s not really her job, either.
Do you think I’m hurting my credibility as a businessperson in situations like this?
I am very clear about this: Yes.
As a woman in a male-dominated organization or situation, it is very hard to resist taking on roles that women have typically taken on. The pull of gender stereotypes is incredibly strong. So keep in mind that the CEO was just doing what he’s learned to do, and so were you.
One way to establish your identity as a professional is to quietly and effectively detach yourself from tasks that reinforce the stereotype-even if you enjoy being responsible for food! Next time, you might just say something like “Maybe one of you can get the food this time.” Phrase it as a statement, not a question. Perhaps you can rotate the role. And when it’s your turn again, be gracious about it.
You’ve mentioned that your business is growing… perhaps it’s a good time to plan for food at other meetings as your business becomes more complex and the number of meetings inevitably increases. Perhaps you can approach the CEO and suggest that he consider assigning responsibility for food to the receptionist who in this day and age may be a male or female! You might also suggest that the arrangements be made in advance. That will help.
Of course, the real way to establish credibility will be through your expertise and the way you manage it. Focus more on the quality of your legal advice and the authoritative way you give it. As you gain respect for your ideas, the food issue may just resolve itself – for you as well as for the others.
Have you ever felt like Liz? Please share how you handled the situation.