When I first started boxing I sparred only with my trainer. His punches were tap, tap, taps on my face, to the body. Our rounds felt like lessons, not fights. He'd talk to me the whole time, offering encouragement and advice.
Then one day he put me in the ring with another woman.
We started off trading jabs, shuffling around the ring, feeling each other out. I moved in and threw a gentle jab, careful to hit the padded headgear, not her face. Seeing an opening, she stepped in with a hard right that landed between my eyes, stinging the bridge of my nose.
I blinked away tears.
"She HIT me," I thought, irrationally.
I wanted to put my hands over my head and crumple in a heap on the mat until I realized she was preparing to punch me again.
I slipped to the side and put my hands up. She caught me with a left hook. There was no escaping it: I was in a boxing ring and I was going to have to fight back.
I threw a jab, harder than I'd ever dared. It connected, and I felt the punch through my glove and up my arm. My sparring partner smiled under her headgear. While I stood still to admire my punch, she connected with another right cross.
"Hands up," my trainer yelled, "move!"
I snapped back into the moment and focused, trying to coordinate my hands and feet. I threw some left-right combinations, moving quickly after I punched to avoid her fists. She hit me with a solid body shot to my left side that reminded me to block my sides with my elbows. I hung in there, just barely, for the rest of the two-minute round. The bell rang and I collapsed forward my hands on my knees.
"I got hit," I thought.
And then, "And I hit back."
I thought of that first punch to the face when I saw a recent New York Times article, Why Women Aren't C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were. Only slightly more than six percent of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are women, and one of the problems, the article states, is "most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive."
A woman who spent 30 years in Fortune 500 companies told this story:
“I got a guy his C-suite job,” she recalled. “I’m sitting there at the C-suite table and he takes a massive swipe at me on my business: ‘She’s not doing this right.’ I go down the hall, and I go to my friend and say, ‘What the hell just happened?’ And she said, ‘Did you forget the boys play a 24/7 game of dodge ball? You just walked into the gym. You whip the ball, and if it happens to knock somebody on the head, so what?’
For women who were taught their whole lives to follow the rules, to be well-liked, to not interrupt, adjusting to the executive culture in the United States can be a challenge. Women in this situation have two choices: change the culture, or change themselves. Changing the culture is a long-term game, so the most immediate strategy is to find a way to play the game.
How do you overcome a lifetime of politeness training?
Many women are discovering building strength in the gym gives them strength in the boardroom. A gym full of barbells helps many women tap into that aggression, to practice being ruthless and competitive.
The Women's Strength Coalition, a group that combines activism and weight lifting, recently hosted a powerlifting competition in Brooklyn. There, women talked about how discovering their strength in the gym affected other areas of their lives.
Lara Hogan, 31, an engineering director at Etsy, has spent her whole career “in rooms full of dudes.” But when she started powerlifting a year and a half ago, it shifted how she felt at work. “There’s something about feeling physically strong in an intimidating room or a room where you’re unsure,” she said.
Another woman told the story of a man enlisting her help to move a heavy whiteboard in the midst of a high level executive meeting. After that moment, she said the dynamic in the room changed. Feeling her physical strength made her embrace her role as a leader, boosting her confidence.
Being confident and assertive is not about breaking rules or stepping on others on your way to the top. It's about knowing your worth, in owning your experience and intelligence. It's about openly disagreeing and standing your ground.
Getting hit in the face and then learning how to hit back changed how I felt about myself. If I could stand in a ring and hold my own, what else could I do?