Many years ago, I was hired as a business development manager for a tech consulting company based in Silicon Valley. The company had been recently acquired by a larger firm based in India. The new President had just flown in from India to visit the California office where I was based.
He joined our weekly company meeting in the boardroom. From the head of the table, he and I chatted for a couple of minutes before the meeting started. Then he said, “It would be nice to have some coffee from the Starbucks downstairs. Would you like some coffee as well, Jenna?”
I didn’t want coffee, so I responded, “No, thank you. I don’t drink coffee this late in the day.”
My boss, the company’s vice president, looked at me from across the conference table in shock, mouth gaping open.
Mike, a colleague who had the same title that I had in the company, rephrased the question to me, “Jenna, you love a good Starbucks latte. Wouldn’t you love a cup like right now?”
I answered, “No, Mike. If I have coffee now, I’ll be awake all night. I’ll skip it.”
The meeting continued sans coffee, but after the meeting, Mike came to my desk. He asked me to show him how to use the coffeemaker in the break room.
I said “I don’t know why you’re asking me as I’ve never made coffee in the office before.”
At the end of the day, I stopped in my boss’ office to say good night, and there was the company president.
Seated across from my bosses desk. he said to me, “Jenna, I look up to you.”
I said, “That’s probably because I’m wearing heels.”
We all shared a laugh.
Later that evening, I reflected back on the goings-on of the day and realized what had gone down in the office that day.
These men expected me to get their coffee for them.
They didn’t know how to react when I didn’t drop what I was doing to take care of their wish for coffee.
From their behavior, I could only guess that these men were used to having their needs prioritized by the women in their lives, including by female employees.
But by not subordinating my needs, I gained respect.
I showed the president that I regarded myself as higher than him. Not by position, and not in a rude or conceited way, but in the way that I confidently represented my own needs as primary.
My actions reminded him that we are all responsible for our own needs. Even when you’re the big boss.
I share this story for two key reasons:
First, when we prioritize our needs, we demonstrate our self-respect to others. We show them how we expect them to treat us.
And second, even today, archaic gender expectations exist in the workplace and, if left unchecked, they can reinforce outmoded views that we are less valuable than our male counterparts.
For our own success and promotability, we must be extremely cautious about taking on the tasks that our male peers would not be asked to do.
We can be friendly, helpful, and collaborative in the workplace.
We don’t have to change our personalities to be more like men to succeed.
That said, we must always show respect for ourselves. And in doing so, we’ll gain respect from others in return.
I explore these topics and many more in my book, “I Love Me More: How to Find Happiness and Success Through Self-Love” as I share what I have learned on my journey from self-loathing to loving myself more, more than any one else, and why that’s important.