Dear Businesslady: How Do I Say the Thing?

Advice on Speaking Up and Self-Advocacy

Dear Businesslady,

Right after college, I moved to LA for an internship with a production company which — besides me — is all men. Recently, I saw the CEO (a dude in his 40s) do something offensive that really shocked me. Two women about my age came into the office to talk about a project and hopefully sell it to the company. While they were waiting for one of the company’s team members to arrive for their presentation, one of the women went to the restroom. When she came back, the CEO said to her, jokingly “We were talking about all your sexual proclivities while you were gone.”

Wanting to sell their project to this guy’s company, the women giggled nervously and tried to change the subject. The CEO wasn’t having it, and he kept asking the woman who went to the restroom to guess what sexual habits they had been talking about. She smiled and kept saying and things like “Really?” and “Seriously?” until the missing team member mercifully arrived so the presentation could begin.

I was wondering what suggestions you might have for these women that could address the offensive behavior without putting them in a position to lose the business?

— Horrified Bystander

Dear Horrified,

I’ve read your letter repeatedly, and each time it makes me tense every muscle in my body. I’m starting to feel like this kind of, “Haha, we’re all bros here” sexism is the most insidious, enduring version of old-school misogyny. It exploits the fact that many of us are socialized to be accommodating, and it’s only gotten stronger as mixed-gender friendships and ribald female comedy have become more prevalent. Let’s just get something stated for the record: women are allowed make dirty jokes at their discretion among friends — including straight male friends. That does not mean that all other men get to steer conversations into inappropriately sexual territory.

The worst part about your question is that I don’t know how to answer it. There’s a pretty common paradox that happens in advice columns, where the letter writer asks “how can I do X thing without Y consequence?” It’s usually something like “How do I tell my brother that I think his new tattoo is idiotic without him getting upset?” and yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

And depressingly, furiously, confoundedly, that’s how I feel about the possibility of these women calling out the CEO’s bullshit without jeopardizing their business prospects in the process. In terms of achieving their professional objectives at the meeting, tense-jawed smiling and fake-laughing incredulity were probably the best strategic response. Of course I can’t fault them — I think it’s exactly what a lot of people would do if the stakes were high. You’re stuck. There’s a power differential. You don’t want to watch all your hard work evaporate over someone else’s “joke.” That’s exactly why sexist behavior is a problem. If women were allowed to flip the table and walk out whenever they were subjected to it, knowing that the guy responsible would get reprimanded if not fired, then I don’t think it would be nearly as pervasive.

That being said, I wonder if we should be giving these troglodyte titans of industry quite so much credit. If you did (metaphorically) flip a table and walk out, what would happen? If the executive found himself explaining, “Well, I jumped right into making sexual jokes about her,” I can imagine that would raise some hackles with higher-ups — especially if it means they lost a client. CEOs are powerful people, sure, but they aren’t omnipotent. Even if you need support from the type of organization that they command, they probably aren’t the only game in town.

There are always going to be times in life when you need to put up with something you find despicable in the service of a larger goal. Sometimes grinning through sexism is a survival strategy, and by suggesting other options, I’m not trying to say that anyone is obligated to undertake a one-woman crusade.

My point is just that people act obnoxious because they think they can get away with it. Every time someone says “I’m not going to put up with that,” a feminist angel gets its wings — by which I mean, you teach a lesson that misogyny can have professional repercussions.

And I certainly think there’s a middle ground between acquiescence and outright confrontation. If we’re all supposedly jokin’ around like brahs here, why not be *~*super funny*~* right back? “What are my sexual proclivities? Oh, I don’t know, I have a fetish about punching dudes who don’t respect my boundaries. Haha.” [Hard stare.] Maybe that’s too aggressive (I’ll acknowledge it might be; I’m just angry right now), but still. How about an airy “I think we can all agree that’s not an appropriate topic for a meeting like this — ” followed by a small-talk question about literally anything else. (And, needless to say, if you’re not stuck in awkward “waiting for people” limbo, you can shut shit down by reminding everyone why you’re actually there.) While I suppose it’s not out of the question for the piggishness to persist even after that, you can just repeat variations of the above until the meeting gets underway. Or opt for increasingly chilly variations on “I am not answering that question and for your sake I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask it. You’re welcome.”

Bigger picture, it’s one thing to encounter this kind of culture in Hollywood, where force-smiling through one meeting helps you land a multimillion-dollar movie deal (and where the norms are generally out of sync with the rest of the professional world). In most jobs, though, we’re not talking about an isolated incident. The comments are usually coming from someone who’s responsible for your livelihood in some ongoing way. In those cases, if you can decide to take a different job, partner with a different investor, sell to a different buyer or whatever it would mean for you to send the message “this isn’t acceptable,” you’ll be helping chip away at the sense of entitlement that undergirds the patriarchy.

Which, you know, I’m entirely in favor of.

Taking on the patriarchy is so exhausting, though, which is why my call to arms is conditional. You can’t always muster the perfect comeback when you’re numb with fury, the Kill Bill siren music blaring through your head — and you also can’t fight the good fight if you’re too appalled to speak at all.

Plus, saying anything to anyone can be enough of a challenge regardless of context, so it can be useful to practice using your words in less culturally fraught situations. To that end, let’s palate-cleanse with a different kind of difficult conversation.

Dear Businesslady,

How can I ask for a bigger Christmas bonus this year? I am a personal assistant, so it’s my job to remind my boss about Christmas bonuses. I’m still getting what I used to when I was part time, even though I know my predecessor got more.

I’m planning on asking for the low end of what she used to get, not the amount she got after 10 years in the position — or I would do an open-ended ask and see what he comes up with.

Any tips?


Mo’ Money, Mo’ Presents

Dear MoMo,

The best thing about your situation is that you get to skip right past the question of how to raise the subject with your boss. Even if it’s on you to remind him, he’s already expecting you to say, “so we need to talk about Christmas bonuses,” so you’re spared the agita of trying to steer a meeting in that direction. (On the other hand, for anyone who does need to find a way to bring it up, “I was wondering if we could talk about Christmas bonuses at some point” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to your manager during a meeting. The actual discussion may not happen right then and there, but it sets the stage for hashing things out when the time is right.)

The tricky part is that we’re talking about bonuses here, which is an unusual category of compensation. Unlike salary — which always has some correlation with the market value of the work you’re doing — bonuses are explicitly designed to supplement your base pay. In some organizations they might follow a strict accrual system based on clearly defined goals (where there’s no mystery involved whatsoever), but often they’re intended to be fun surprises — which it sounds like is the case for MoMo in the letter above. In this looser kind of setup, their primary business goal is to improve employee satisfaction and loyalty, with the understanding that a happy worker is going to be more productive and perform at a higher level.

That’s where it gets a little weird: a bonus is essentially a gift, and most social training dictates that you don’t stipulate the pricetag of the presents you receive. I might tell my parents that I want a new green cardigan for Christmas, but I’m not going to say “and make sure you spend at least $40 on it.”

Then again, I’m going to love my parents regardless of whether or not they get me a cute new sweater — but it’s perfectly reasonable to switch jobs if you don’t think you’re getting paid enough. So by having this discussion, you’re basically giving your boss guidance on what kind of incentives it’ll take to retain you.

The first step in the conversation happens before it even starts: you need to get your thoughts organized. Have a clear idea of what your ideal outcome is, and come up with a list of reasons that support your point. You’re probably in the habit of bringing a notebook or similar into your meetings, so use that to write down a few notes to help you remember your key points. It might not be necessary (or possible) to go through all of them, but at the very least it will prevent you from throwing yourself off-balance because you feel like you’re forgetting something important. This info will primarily be an account of your recent accomplishments, particularly times when you went above and beyond or otherwise demonstrated your dedication to the organization. If true, you might also mention the fact that you’re receiving less money than your peers even if your work is just as solid, and/or a comparison to industry standards that supports your argument.

For you, MoMo, the transition from part-time to full time should offer a convenient mathematical formula for coming up with a target figure. Presumably your salary went up when you started working more hours, so I’d apply that same percentage to your bonus and see what number you end up with. If you’d be happy with that as a bonus, then you’re ready to start talking. More work, more time, more bonus, all increasing apace — that sounds pretty compelling to me.

However, if that’s still not enough — if the lower range of what your predecessor got is still far more generous than whatever emerged after your scale-up calculations — then you’ll have to rely on some of the techniques I already mentioned: showing the high caliber of your work and proposing that it deserves a greater level of recognition. You might want to pitch your request slightly higher than what you really want, too — because when you present professional types with an amount that’s coming directly out of their pockets, their typical response is an attempt to bargain you down.

Whatever approach you choose, leading with “I was wondering if it would be possible to increase my bonus now that I’m full time” should be a good way to kick off the discussion. Your boss might be reluctant to throw out a number before you name one, but that’s why you come to the meeting prepared to get specific. As long as you don’t get overly ambitious (like suggesting you should get the same amount as the previous assistant received after a decade of service, which you’re clearly smart enough not to do), it shouldn’t be hard to make this Christmas a little merrier.

Here’s hoping your holidays are holly, jolly, and fiscally fair.

— Businesslady

In need of workplace advice for your own professional misadventures? Email me!

Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet (including but not limited to Twitter). Her career guide, Is This Working?, is forthcoming from Adams Media in March 2017.

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