Responding to awkward questions and comments
For the occasion of International Women’s Day (which takes place on 8th March each year) and in the midst of Women’s History (or might we say ‘herstory’) Month, I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences as a professional woman, and how to provide insight for BSAA readers (regardless of gender!). This honours a BSAA value of ‘equality,’ and also recognises that gender equality is beneficial for all in professional life*.
I went into my career as a human being and didn’t pay a lot of attention in the early days to being a woman in business. I subsequently found that my gender, in combination with my age, was frequently on the minds of others. It often became a distraction from the conversation or matter at hand.
Here are some of the of things commonly said to me at professional events, from fairs to artist studios, over the years:
“Pardon me for asking, but how old are you?”
“When do you plan on having children?”
“So your husband is in the business, too?”
Et cetera, et cetera.
I eventually learned that it was incredibly helpful to have responses at the ready for common questions and comments. This helped me to maintain confidence, not end up on my back foot and take control of the situation. As I matured, I also learned to be cheeky with responses, making people feel a bit ridiculous for what they’d said whilst enabling an air-clearing laugh followed by a moving-on of dialogue. Other people can also have an important role to play in highlighting inappropriate topics and moving on the conversation.
How might this apply to yourself? From my perspective today as a one-to-one adviser, I realise that these questions are often indicative of the other person’s own state of mind. Accordingly, while such remarks might have very little to do with yourself, acknowledging the ‘ism’ (whatever it is) can work wonders for refocusing conversation and squashing any doubts in the other person’s mind.
When it comes to answering awkward questions and comments, I implore you to not burn down bridges. Instead, address the question or comment with grace and professionalism. This enables you to strengthen relationships, not to mention establish ambassadors to champion your amazing self.
As a promo postcard by inVISIBLEwomen.org.uk (a catalyst for gender equality in civic statues in the UK) states:
Don’t make the mistake of thinking we want what you’ve got.
We are not seeking to become dominant.
We want to share something better with you – equality.
Consider it our gift.
* See ‘Delivering through Diversity,’ an article with McKinsey & Company that provides insight into recent research on the important role that diversity has to play in company performance. The general principles apply regardless of industry, including the arts.
** Bias: According to the Oxford Dictionary, “it’s an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” Beliefs or demographics most often cause biases.