Leading Ladies - Challenges with 'Respect' as a Young Female Leader


"So you're the Senior HR Officer?"

"That's right. It's a standalone HR role."

"So who makes your decisions. The director? Can I speak to him?"

"I make the decisions and I don't think we're interested in what you're offering."

Most of my conversations seem to follow this flow at the moment. Comments about having "worked with the company for a long time" and having "numerous lunches with your president". Followed by clear reluctance to discuss anything of importance with me unless I pass it along to my 'boss'.

It wasn't until speaking to a colleague today that I realised perhaps it was because of my gender and age that people felt free in speaking to me in this way. I tried to imagine an older male in my role being spoken to in the same way and felt stuck. It didn't seem likely that they would approach the conversations in the same way with so little hesitance.

I'm very fortunate to have a great role in a great company with a very supportive president. He invites me to Senior Management meetings, financial discussions, business trips and let's me lead the way when it comes to our HR function.

But I'm also 27 and female.

So even if my lovely boss does not see it that way I have started to notice the way external interactions are affected.

At a meeting with a provider last week I spoke to three men who were very unimpressed with my list of items surrounding problems we were having with their work for us. Though they were supposed to be providing a service to me I felt like I was the one trying to sell when some points I raised were thrown back at me with a "we can always change our pay structure given how cheaply we are working for you at the moment". 

It's not just men either. At another provider meeting, a female told me she had a very good relationship with my boss and when I raised issues with the service she told me there had never been a problem before and perhaps I needed to change my methods. This turned out to be very untrue when I mentioned it to my predecessor.

After each of these meetings I spoke with my colleagues. They were less than pleased and very kind to me but I felt like I had somehow failed. Bit by bit my confidence was being chipped away and I felt the strain of the journey ahead should I have to fight through so much resistance.

A few days after my meeting with the men I pointed out an issue with the contract they had submitted and asked for a revision. It was very quickly returned to me that I should just ignore the issue and sign. They copied in my boss.

I replied curtly. Make the change or no signature and the next response was, again, very unapologetic. But I stuck to my guns.

Eventually they caved and the document was revised but it took much longer than it should of and not only my time but my mental energy was wasted on such a small issue.

I feel there are a lot of hurdles for women in the workforce to overcome. Especially as a young female in a leadership position. Gaining respect requires more effort than you would expect and being asked in every interaction who your boss is can be incredibly draining.

When my colleague saw the email from the provider she came to me immediately.

"That was out of order"

"Wasn't it?!" I was relieved to have an ally.

She confided that this was something she had experienced also and yet her male counterpart had no issues. Just hearing her talk about her own struggle was reassuring and I felt the weight of my previous defeats lifted.

Once reminded that I held the power and letting these unpleasant interactions effect me was only forcing me to relinquish that. It also reminded me that it's hard to fight these things alone and asking for help or even a sympathetic ear can make a ton of difference.

In future, I'm sure there will be many more of these situations; both intentional and unintentional. But whether I let wear me down or not is up to me. Patience and confidence are my allies and from now on I won't let external pressures take them from me.