How do you respond to charges of being too aggressive or sensitive?

by Shari Graydon

Let’s say you’re an intelligent, confident and assertive woman who doesn’t shy away from expressing your opinion: chances are that at one time or another, a colleague may have decided you were “too aggressive.”

Or maybe, by politely objecting to sexist behaviour in your workplace – the kind that expects the women present to  serve the coffee, tolerate derogatory comments, or delight in remarks about their appearance – you’ve been accused of being “over-sensitive”.

Last week at an Unbitten Tongues* forum with three fearless panelists and about 65 engaged civil servants in Alberta, both of these examples came up.

How, really, women asked, does one overcome the momentary disbelief or flash of irritation to respond to such comments effectively?

Dana DiTomaso, a digital marketing expert, CBC technology columnist and partner at Kick Point, observed that ever since she started dressing in men’s clothing, she’s no longer on the receiving end of such patronizing remarks.


(l to r) Dana DiTomaso, Shari Graydon, Deborah Drever and Miranda Jimmy

(pictured left to right) Dana DiTomaso, Shari Graydon, Deborah Drever and Miranda Jimmy in Edmonton February 9th.


But for those not willing to sacrifice their style preferences in order to be treated with respect, she offered the following comeback strategy:

Rather than try to respond to a comment or accusation that puts you on the defensive, she suggested, try shifting the onus onto the accuser by asking:

“How so?”

I think the strategy is inspired.

Because whether or not people offering such criticism are consciously trying to shut you down, by expecting them to explain or defend their comments, you’re both implicitly rejecting the premise of the dismissal, and requiring your accuser to articulate the value judgments that informed the comments. Their efforts to do so are likely to reveal more about their attitudes and assumptions than about your behaviour or emotional state.

The two other Edmonton panelists, recruited by the government of Alberta’s Ministry of the Status of Women, were equally thoughtful. Recently elected MLA Deborah Drever has been volunteering in her community since the age of eight, and is completing a degree in sociology at Mount Royal University. And Miranda Jimmy is a member of Thunderchild First Nation who sits on the Edmonton Public Library board and co-founded RISE – Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton – to support reconciliation in words and actions.

The participation of the three women in the Unbitten Tongues forum gave those present an opportunity to hear from, ask questions of and be inspired by role models who are speaking up in pursuit of making change in business, in government and in the non-profit sector.

For so many women who are working in arenas that are led and/or dominated by male colleagues, the opportunity to engage in frank conversations in a safe, women-only space is revelatory and invigorating.

That’s why, over the next year, in conjunction with the launch of my new book, OMG! What if I really AM the best person? I’ll be looking to convene similar panels in cities across Canada.

If you’re interested in engaging, motivating and supporting women in your network or community to speak up for change, please let us know. We would love to collaborate with you.

*Unbitten Tongues – In recognition of the difference women can make when they speak up — despite the many internal and external barriers to doing so — Informed Opinions offers opening remarks and facilitates panel discussions aimed at encouraging more women to share their knowledge and speak their truth.