Several years ago, I was the chief counsel of the large multi-million dollar subsidiary of an even larger multi-national corporation. Most people at the subsidiary (a software company) knew who I was, and were aware of my job title; conversely, at the time, most at the parent company had no clue who I was.
One day, I was asked to participate as legal counsel for a project at the parent corporation. The project involved software and other technology, and since that was my forte, one of the parent company executives had invited me to be a part of the team, having worked with me once before.
I arrived at the project kickoff meeting, and my colleague wasn't there; however, two other men who were engrossed in conversation were. One of them saw me enter, and smiled. "Hey, honey, could you get us some coffee? Thanks."
My first reaction was indignation, my second was to explain who I was. But then, thank goodness, I decided to go with my third reaction.
"Sure," I said. "How would you like it?" And I went to get the coffee.
When I returned, I placed the coffee in front of the two men, and I sat down at the table with my own cup. Honey-Get-the-Coffee-Man was clearly bewildered at my presence. But by then, my colleague had arrived, and had begun the meeting.
"Thanks, everyone, for coming. Before we get started, however, I think it might be a good idea for us to go around the table and introduce ourselves, give everyone your title, and what your role will be for the team."
When they got to me, I fixed my eyes on Coffee Man, and said, "Hi. I'm Karen. I'm Chief Counsel for our software subsidiary, and I'll be providing legal guidance to this team."
The look on Coffee Man’s face was priceless – I think he turned at least three shades of red. I smiled warmly at him and winked, which I think only increased his embarrassment. While he never apologized, for the rest of my career at the software subsidiary (and later, parent company) he went out of his way to be helpful, and was always supportive of my ideas and opinions.
I tell this story because as the mother of a young girl, I feel (rightly or wrongly) a certain duty to represent the best of what I believe it means to be a strong woman to my daughter as she grows up. And while some might disagree with how I handled Coffee Man, to me, being a strong woman means sometimes knowing when to get up in someone's face about something, and when a quieter approach will work. But it also means having a certain healthy sense of entitlement: it means being confident enough in yourself to know that you have every right to be where you are at that very moment. As women, sometimes we find ourselves believing the hype: buying into the opinion that maybe we don't belong, or aren't as good as the men, or aren't talented enough to be invited to sit at the table. My goal is to make sure my daughter never feels this way.
And, as far as I'm concerned, none of us are ever too young to learn this lesson.