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Dealing With A Double Standard In The Workplace? Here's What To Do About It

6min read
Career

Let's take a page or two from Serena Williams' playbook, shall we?


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As the only female c-suite executive in a male-dominated industry, I was often asked by other women, in rather hushed tones, “How do I deal with the double standard?!" Invariably the phrase “I feel damned if I do, damned if I don't…" had a starring role in their inquiries.

There's no denying how what's happening in the world of business, politics and even in sports highlight the continuing double standard that exists around what behavior is acceptable for and/or required of a woman versus that of a man. In responding to the women who come to me, it's helpful to draw parallels to what was happening in society to anchor in the learning. So let's reflect on an incident that happened just last year at the US Open Women's Tennis Championship.

You remember. The one in which Serena Williams was penalized several points for arguing with the (male) chair umpire and was eventually penalized points that cost her a game. Serena argued that men have said far worse things than she did without being penalized as much.

Many debated: if Serena were a man standing on the court would there have even been an issue? How pervasive is the double standard in sports, business, and everyday interactions, especially when it comes to how men and women communicate during unpleasant confrontations?

Very pervasive still, unfortunately. It only takes watching a professional football game on Sunday to see it. The male athlete who's in the ref's face over what he perceives to be a bad call while society proudly hollers along with him, commending him for having “passion!"

But when a woman takes a stand like that, somehow she's viewed as having “poor sportsmanship" or considered to behave badly “…for a woman…"

I call it the double bind because so often a woman is damned if you do and damned if you don't. Passionately argue your point? You're labeled as too aggressive or the proverbial bitch. Sink back quietly and say nothing? You're considered weak.

And unfortunately such double standards extend beyond the sports court; they still exist in the boardroom too. I would know. Over the course of my career and as an international C-suite executive and only woman in an all-male team, I've witnessed more than my fair share of this double standard. So have the women I coach.

Two clients are in the thick of this muck right now. Perhaps you can relate? One's been told she's “too much"; the other, that she creates an unwelcoming environment with her assertive style. Like Serena, they've both choked back tears as they describe behavior on a much worse scale by men in their organizations who seemingly can get away with murder.

While we can argue about how such double standards aren't right or fair 'til the cows come home, let's instead focus on the lessons we can take from Serena for how to handle such situations — because they can and will come up. Knowing how to successfully communicate during heated confrontation can make or break your career.

Lesson 1: Serena had a conviction and she spoke up.

Oftentimes women in such situations don't speak up and won't defend themselves because they either don't know what to say or they're overly concerned about what other people will think. When you don't speak up, people will continue being highly argumentative with you, putting you down, making passive aggressive digs, etc., because with your silence comes your permission for them to treat you that way.

It takes courage to use your voice in powerful ways, especially when the stakes are high and something completely out of the blue catches you off guard. The best way to speak up in such moments is to learn how to have a fierce conversation well in advance. The resource I recommend to all my clients is the book called just that: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. The section on handling strong emotions on both sides of the table is gold!

Lesson 2: Serena regained her composure and her graciousness quickly.

Heated debate and disagreements are going to happen. How you handle them in the moment matters, but what you do after the moment oftentimes matters more because that's what people remember. It's about knowing how to say the tough stuff (lesson 1) without remaining in a funk for days on end after, because if you stay angry and bitter folks will run the other way in avoidance.

And avoidance is the corporate plague that'll kill off any chance of respect, influence, promotion or success you've dreamed about.

So how do you regain your composure and grace quickly?

First, breathe! It's an age-old solution because it works!

Second, don't take things personally. Someone else's behavior is usually all about them, not you. To regain your composure and grace it really helps to look at things as removed from the core of who you are. This isn't about being in denial or pretending that something wrong didn't happen. It's about disassociating the other person's venomous actions or words from your self-worth.

Lesson 3. Serena's not going to let that one situation keep her down.

The level of resilience needed to be a professional, driven woman in business today is significant and requires that you:

Are confident in who you are, having an inner strength that allows you to dig deep and stay centered when the world is swirling around you.

Know that business is a marathon, not a sprint—so be mindful of your own pace.

Don't try doing it all alone.

That last bullet point is especially important. Having a mentor who can help you navigate these choppy waters is essential.

And I'm not talking about your mama, your boo or your best friend at work! We love them but they are not in a position to give you objective advice. Your mom just wants to console you, your boo is likely concerned with protecting you, and your girlfriend is there to commiserate with you. None of that is actually going to help propel you forward in what you need to do to confidently handle the double bind at work.

It's vital you have someone objective in your corner, ideally, someone who is at least two pay grades above you, who has been around the block and can really guide you on how to finesse these situations when they come up.

Know that success in handling confrontation at work and in life is like a muscle: it needs time and practice to get stronger. Do not beat yourself up if your words come out a little jumbled at first. With practice and leveraging the tips I've shared here, you will grow in your ability to advocate for yourself and others. And when you do, others take note. You gain more standing and respect. And your own inner-confidence grows and shines a light for others to follow.

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Choosing the Right Corporate Structure: Which Business Entity Should You Go With?

Business entities can be defined as the corporate, tax and legal structures which an organization chooses to officially follow at the time of its official registration with the state authorities. In total, there are fifteen different types of business entities, which would be the following.


  • Sole Proprietorship
  • General Partnership
  • Limited Partnership or LP
  • Limited Liability Partnership or LLP
  • Limited Liability Limited Partnership or LLLP
  • Limited Liability Company or LLC
  • Professional LLC
  • Professional Corporation
  • B-Corporation
  • C-Corporation
  • S-Corporation
  • Nonprofit Organization
  • Estate
  • Cooperative Organization
  • Municipality

As estates, municipalities and nonprofits do not concern the main topic here, the following discussions will exclude the three.

Importance of the State: The Same Corporate Structure Will Vary from State to State

All organizations must register themselves as entities at the state level in United States, so the rules and regulations governing them differ quite a bit, based on the state in question.

What this means is that a Texas LLC for example will not operate under the same rules and regulations as an LLC registered in New York. Also, an LLC in Texas can have the same name as another company that is registered in a different state, but it's not advisable given how difficult it could become in the future while filing for patents.

To know more about such quirks and step-by-step instructions on how to start an LLC in Texas, visit howtostartanllc.com, and you could get started with the online process immediately. The information and services on the website are not just limited to Texas LLC organizations either, but they have a dedicated page for guiding fresh entrepreneurs through the corporate tax structures in every state.

Sole Proprietorship: Default for Freelancers and Consultants

There is only one owner or head in a sole proprietorship, and that's what makes it ideal for one-man businesses that deal with freelance work and consulting services. Single man sole proprietorships are automatic in nature, therefore, registration with the state is unnecessary.

Sole proprietorships are also suited to a degree for singular teams such as a small construction crew, a group of handymen, or even miniature establishments in retail. Also, this puts the owner's personal financial status at jeopardy.

Due to the fact that a sole proprietorship entity puts all responsibilities for paying taxes and returning loans, it directly jeopardizes the sole proprietor's personal belongings in case of a lawsuit, or even after a failed loan repayment.

This is the main reason why even the most miniature establishments find LLCs to be a better option, but this is not the only reason either. Sole proprietors also find it hard to start their business credit or even get significant business loans.

General Partnership: Equal Responsibilities

The only significant difference between a General Partnership and a Sole Proprietorship is the fact that two or more owners share responsibilities and liabilities equally in a General Partnership, as opposed to there being only one responsible and liable party in the latter. Other than that, they more or less share the same pros and cons.

Registration with the state is not necessary in most cases, and although it still puts the finances of the business owners at risk here, the partnership divides the liability, making it a slightly better option than sole proprietorship for small teams of skilled workers or even small restaurants and such.

Limited Partnership: Active and Investing Partners

A Limited Partnership (LP) has to be registered with a state and whether it has just two or more partners, there are two different types of partners in all LP establishments.

The active partner or the general partner is the one who is responsible and liable for operating the business in its entirety. The silent or investing partner, on the other hand, is the one who invests funds or other resources into the organization. The latter has very limited liability or control over the company's operations.

It's a perfect way for investors to put their money into a sector that they are personally not experienced with, but have access to people who do. From the perspective of the general partners, they have similar responsibilities and liabilities to those in a general partnership.

It's the default strategy for startups to find funding and as long as the idea is sound, it has made way for multiple successful entrepreneurial ventures in the recent past. However, personal liability still looms as a dangerous prospect for the active partners to consider.

Limited Liability Company and Professional LLC

Small businesses have no better entity structure to follow than the LLC, given that it takes multiple good ideas from various corporate structures, virtually eliminating most cons that are inherent to them. Any and all small businesses that are in a position to or are in requirement of signing up with their respective state, usually choose an LLC entity because of the following reasons:

  • It removes the dangerous aspect of personal liability if the business falls in debt or is sued for reparations
  • The state offers the choice of choosing between corporation and partnership tax slabs
  • The limited legalities and paperwork make it suited for small businesses

While more expensive than a general partnership or a sole proprietorship, a professional LLC is going to be a much safer choice for freelancers and consultants, especially if it involves risk of any kind. This makes it ideal for even single man businesses such a physician's practice or the consultancy services of an accountant.

B, C and S-Corporation

By definition, all corporation entities share most of the same attributes and as the term suggests, they're more suited for larger or at least medium sized businesses in any sector. The differences between the three are vast once you delve into the tax structures which govern each entity.

However, the basic differences can be observed by simply taking a look at each of their definitive descriptions, as stated below.

C-Corporation – This is the default corporate entity for large or medium-large businesses, complete with a board of directors, a CEO/CEOs, other executive officers and shareholders.

The shareholders or owners are not liable for debts or legal dispute settlements in a C-Corporation, and they may qualify for lower tax slabs than is possible in any other corporate structure. On becoming big enough, they also have the option to become a publicly traded company, which is ideal for generating growth investments.

B- Corporation – the same rules apply as a C-Corporation, but due to their registered and certified commitment to social and environmental standards maintenance, B-Corporations will have a more lenient tax structure to deal with.

S-Corporation – Almost identical to a C-Corporation, the difference is in scale, as S-Corporations are only meant for small businesses, general partnerships and even sole proprietors. The main difference here is that due to the creation of a pass-through entity, aka a S-Corporation, the owner/owners do not have liability for business debt and legal disputes. They also are not taxed on the corporate slab.

Cooperative: Limited Application

A cooperation structure in most cases is a voluntary partnership of limited responsibilities that binds people in mutual interest - it is an inefficient structure due to the voluntary nature of its legal bindings, which often makes it unsuitable for traditional business operations. Nevertheless, the limited liability clause exempts all members of a cooperative from having personal liability for paying debts and settling claims.

This should clear up most of the confusion surrounding the core concepts and their suitability. In case you are wondering why the Professional Corporation structure wasn't mentioned, then that's because it has very limited applications. Meant for self-employed, skilled professionals or small organizations founded by them, they have less appeal now in comparison to an LLC or an S-Corporation.