When I was a child, my mother always told me, “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.” It was an idiom that stayed with me. As I got older and began navigating my way through adult life, I prided myself on maintaining a certain sweetness, infusing my daily interactions with compassion and kindness – learning that those I interacted with were more responsive, more eager to help, to this kind of energy. Back then, I understood toughness to be a kind of turn off, naively interpreting aggressive women as “bitchy” or “bossy”. It felt good to be nice. My nickname at work was “Bubbles.”
Upon graduating from college, I earned myself a career working as a visual merchandiser for a large retail company. We sold floral kimonos and long bohemian dresses, flower crowns and neon friendship bracelets, and because of this, I worked with ALL women. While I saw all types of managers cycle in and out of the business, I knew that my team of girls worked their hardest while working under women they liked. Thus, I strove to create a work atmosphere that was happy and fun – I was friendly and kind to my employees and when problems arose, I mindfully remained empathetic and gentle. I treated those I managed as if they were my friends. This approach was successful for myself and my team, but I struggled with my own two bosses. I thought of them as bullies or mean girls. Any potentially constructive criticism was shrouded in cattiness – genuine performance feedback was lost, sandwiched between nasty comments about my choice of shoes or outfit that day. I felt defeated and exhausted. Shouldn’t we as women be elevating and supporting the growth of one another in the workplace? These women, these managers, were muddling their feedback with malice, fostering cancerous competitiveness. My once cheerful attitude took a backseat as I struggled to make it through each day. I grew miserable–my self-confidence crumbling–and I desperately needed a change.
At 26, I was given what felt like a big break and was offered a job working in interior design. I was thrilled at the opportunity and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” I put in my notice at the retail company and started at my new job exactly two weeks later. I remember those first few days at work, eyes wide, full of excitement and an intense eagerness to learn. Bubbles was BACK! I ran from the office to meetings to homes under construction. Within the first few days, I felt a shift in myself and suddenly realized the cause. I was now in an industry where I would be constantly surrounded by men. Architects and engineers and contractors and electricians crowded around me on project sites looking for direction. At first, I felt an intense relief. No longer did I receive a full outfit examination upon entering work each morning. And within a matter of weeks, my anxiety about wearing the right shoes or shade of lipstick had melted away.
But the shift in gender dynamics simply brought on new challenges. I began my work as a bright-eyed project manager, with a wide smile, ending each sentence with an exclamation point – but I quickly began to notice I was being taken advantage of. Workers were taking longer lunches. Contractors were taking issues over my head straight to my boss. And I cringed when clients and colleagues referred to me “Sweetie” or “Honey.” I was leaving project sites feeling frustrated and disrespected. Was I not being taken seriously? As a project manager? As a professional woman? Sure I was still learning, but I was also competent, experienced, and strong. Was my kindness being confused for incompetence? Was my sweetness being mistaken for naivete?
I headed back to the office, after a particularly grueling day on site, and was immediately greeted by a gruff request from a colleague I had been having trouble with. Each day, he would enter the office like a dark cloud. An irritated scoff escaped his mouth with every question I asked, every comment I made. He treated me like an intern. I was sick and tired of it and finally snapped back, “When you talk to me like I’m an idiot and you silence my questions, it doesn’t make me want to work harder to please you, it makes me shut down. We are on the same team. Working on the same projects, toward the same goals. If you have a problem with me, let’s discuss it. But if not, you need to know you are just creating a hostile work environment for me. And I won’t stand for it.” I stood there staring, surprised at the power in my own voice, waiting for his reaction. I had spent years working under someone who had made my life miserable and I wasn’t about to set the precedent that it was okay this time around. After a beat, he simply nodded, and said, “okay,” put his headphones on, and turned back to his screen.
I turned and smiled, slightly confused by his lack of his reaction but feeling like I had had a little victory. I was proud of myself, for being bold, but had I overstepped my boundaries? Should I have put my head down and swallowed my words? He was technically my senior. Had I done irreparable damage?
The next morning I walked into work, nervously, only to spot a giant wicker basket on my desk – brimming with pears and cracked pepper crackers and sweet strawberry jam. On its handle, a note read “I’m sorry for my insanity. I appreciate and thank you for all of your hard work – S”.
In that moment, I was intensely proud.
It’s not about being liked. It’s not about being sweet and silent. It’s about being respected. I can, at once, be kind AND assertive. I can, at once, be strong AND warm. S and I went on to have a great work relationship and even became good friends. And with each passing week, I’ve grown stronger, more courageous, more vocal.
SO ladies, my lessons for you:
Don’t minimize your voice.
Don’t be afraid to take up space.
Don’t let them mistake your sweetness for inexperience.
Don’t settle for “Sweetheart”; make them say your name.
Wear whatever shoes make you happy and in moments of doubt, channel Beyonce.
And if you play your cards right, remain bold and keep your voice strong, you may just end up with a fruit basket.
Cait Guryis an Interior Design warrior working New York City. Her past experience in retail primed her for a fast-paced, unforgiving career in design where she darts from site to site, managing projects of all sizes. In her personal time, Cait loves to sing, draw, and bop around Brooklyn where she makes her home.