As I walked into the conference room, I heard a slight gasp. Not a deliberate sound—but more of an involuntary sign of shock from those in the room. Around the table were several of my colleagues and five Japanese men in impeccable suits and scowling faces. I heard the owner of the manufacturing company, of which I was the General Manager introduce me to our visiting guests. I smiled and extended my hand to the gentleman closest to me. My hand hung there longer than socially acceptable as everyone in the room seemed to focus on it. No other hand reached out to shake mine and this man closest to me, who was there to negotiate a 3.7 million dollar contract, feigned a cough and diverted his eyes away from mine.
An executive at the age of 25, I was fairly used to shocking people in my position. I was often asked if I was part of the family business, implying that I neither deserved nor earned my position. I actually revelled in these moments, which gave me a chance to boldly refute those prejudices and sexist beliefs face to face. I’d learned to accept the occasional pushback with humor, a smile and smart thinking, all while wearing a pair of heels.
For all of my confidence, this room full of high-level businessmen from one of the largest companies in the world admittedly had me nervous. I sat down at the table and began speaking, forcing eye contact with each of them. Immediately they stood up and spoke to one another robustly in their language. I didn’t need a translator: it was clear they were refusing to negotiate with a woman. I glanced to my male colleague who raised his hand, and spoke: “Gentlemen, we have much to discuss and I would recommend we get started.” And then a young man, the assistant to the group, slowly announced “We are sorry, but we are uncomfortable discussing this with… a woman.”
A few seconds of silence passed as I formulated the words. I spoke deliberately in a tone reminiscent of a kindergarten teacher to her students. “If you wish to do business with us, you will need to work with me. I will do my best to ignore that you are also all men.”
This cinematic moment would never had been possible if it hadn’t been for the support of my male colleagues, my own near-arrogance in my abilities and my parents who never lead me to believe I was at any disadvantage as a woman in business.
As the negotiations ended many hours later (of which I managed to work out a $923,000 savings) the last gentleman approached me, bowed and said "I have learned" as he deliberately shook my hand.
I had learned as well.
Sometimes leaning in is about standing firm.