Advice for Women, From Women, on Dealing With Difficult Workplace Situations

IEEE WIE webinar highlights three ways to improve your conflict-resolution skills

3 min read

Photograph of two women speaking in an office
Photo: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEMost people view conflict as negative and something that should be avoided. Women have a more difficult time than men dealing with conflict, because they tend to foster a collaborative work environment, put higher value on fostering relationships with team members, and are more empathetic, says Charmaine Hammond, a conflict-resolution expert.

Hammond, along with corporate trainer Pattie Vargas, gave tips in a recent webinar, “The Resilience Factor Is Your Superpower: Dealing With Conflict and Change Management." The virtual session was sponsored by IEEE Women in Engineering and moderated by IEEE senior member Kathy Kerring Hayashi.

Through personal anecdotes, the two women offered three ways to deal with difficult but common situations women face in the workplace.


Address conflict head on, they say. Women tend to value relationships and therefore fear hurting someone's feelings by confronting them, according to Hammond. But when people avoid conflicts, trust erodes and relationships are damaged. Being proactive can keep the situation from getting worse and can help to build stronger relationships and teams.

Two examples of when conflict is typically avoided are when a coworker or manager is disrespectful to you or blames you for something you didn't do—in front of others. Although those are difficult situations to handle, it's important to address them as soon as possible, Hammond says. Be respectful to the individual but meet with the person immediately after the incident and explain how you feel.

“Do not let the conflict linger," Vargas says. “Many times, the coworker who is being disrespectful does not realize how he is coming off. He can't fix his behavior if he doesn't know how it makes you feel."

If that doesn't work, Hammond says, go to your company's human resources department and ask it to mediate the conflict.


Women in leadership positions often feel that if they don't have all the answers, they'll be perceived as ineffective, Hammond says. But employees generally don't expect perfection from their supervisor. A manager who lets her staff see a bit of her vulnerability tends to create stronger relationships and actually boosts the workers' confidence in her because they view her more as an equal.

“It's important to know that as a leader, you can say, 'I don't have an answer, but I'll find out,' or 'I don't know how to deal with this—what does my amazing team have to say about it?'" Hammond says. By involving the team and asking the workers what they think, the leader is showing trust.

Another time when managers should concede that they don't have all the answers is during a reorganization. Employees often want to know how secure their job is; more often than not, the supervisor doesn't know, Vargas says. Instead of acknowledging that, some managers try to reassure their employees that their job is safe, Vargas says, but that can be a dangerous approach because if it turns out not to be the case, all the employees can lose trust in the leader.


Hammond says that one of the most-asked questions she gets is how to deal with being excluded from a discussion or from a meeting. She tells people to insert themselves into the situation.

Many women tend to ask permission to speak, she says. They might use a phrase such as “Can I say something?" Instead, Hammond recommends you be confident and simply state “I have something to add." That way, she says, you make sure you are heard.

If you're excluded from a meeting, it might simply be an oversight, Vargas says. Instead of assuming you were purposely left out, approach the organizer and inquire about the meeting's purpose. One approach is to say, “I noticed there's a meeting Thursday, and I haven't received an invitation yet. Maybe I'm not needed at the meeting, but I just wanted to check to see if I need to slot that on my calendar." Vargas says that most times, the organizer simply forgot to tell you or will explain why you aren't required.

You can watch the webinar and other sessions on demand.

You can still register for the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference to be held on 23 and 24 May in Austin, Texas. The goal of this year's meeting is increasing the retention rates of middle- to senior-level women in technology. It will feature panel discussions, a career fair, and workshops. Keynote sessions are expected to cover empowerment, leadership, and diversity and inclusion.

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