IX Perspectives

Express Yourself: Models for Assertiveness

two indexers in a meeting room

Did you know? According to a study by Pew Research last year, women are twice as likely as men to say they have experienced some form of gender discrimination at work. That’s why conversations that teach us how to stand up for ourselves in the workplace are critical, especially in underrepresented fields like engineering.

I recently had the pleasure of hosting assertiveness workshops at Index Exchange as part of an initiative with our Women in Engineering  group. The group was formed to provide an open forum for those in technical roles at Index—to share stories, learn from others, and (of course), have fun.

I began each workshop with tactics that have worked well for me in the past. Attendees then practiced their skills by applying these tactics to real-world scenarios—like standing up for yourself when a colleague makes inappropriate comments or pushing back when you’re expected to take meeting minutes yet again.

The discussions that took place were incredibly valuable, insightful and well thought out. I learned just as much from my strong and inspiring colleagues as they did from me.

Here are my three key takeaways from the discussions:

1. It’s Not Just You

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be running a workshop on how to be assertive, I probably would have laughed in your face. At that point, I was probably the least assertive person to ever exist. Thankfully, I’ve grown a lot since then, especially when it comes to speaking up for myself.

However, when preparing the workshop, I still wondered: “What if it’s just me, and nobody else has struggled with this?”

During the workshop, participants generously shared personal stories about their struggles as a woman in the workplace, and in sharing, made everyone else feel a little less alone. It was oddly reassuring to hear so many people, across many locations and departments, discussing common obstacles—from feeling like they weren’t being heard to not being considered an expert in their field.

And the facts speak for themselves: The Women in the Workplace 2018 report by Mckinsey, cites that women are more likely to experience microaggressions at work—namely having your judgement questioned or your work contributions being ignored.*

2. Allies Are Key

Some of my favorite discussions involved people advocating for others. One story was about how a few teammates have agreed to point out when someone gets cut off in meetings. Something as simple as saying “I don’t think Sue was done yet,” can help model assertive behaviour and save Sue from always being interrupted.

Others had similar ideas, but added that they would check in with their colleagues about what type of support was required. For example, if Rahul was always taking credit for Jane’s ideas in engineering stand-ups, they would take Jane aside and ask if she noticed this was happening, followed by how they could support her if it continued to happen.

Quite a few people on the receiving end of this tactic (the “Janes” in this scenario) expressed that it really helped to hear someone acknowledge what had been happening, and just knowing someone had their backs gave them the courage they needed to stand up for themselves.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

As with any skill, assertiveness gets easier the more you practice. A few attendees reached out after the workshop saying that they’ve been trying some of the tactics and getting more and more comfortable asserting themselves each time.

It’s also about finding the approach that feels right for you. Some might feel more comfortable asserting themselves if they inject a bit of humour (guilty as charged), while others might be more comfortable with a more matter-of-fact approach. The only way you’re going to learn what works for you is by trying!

Ultimately, what I’ve learned from these workshops is that sharing common challenges and obstacles help everyone feel less alone—something we aim for with every Women in Engineering event.

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