I am only fairly short even as women go, about 162 cms or 5′ 4″ so I have experienced my fair share of people being taller than me over the years. In some cases, people have tried to use their size to intimidate me and I have had (usually) men stand over me at very close quarters. Almost pushing themself up against me, but just being far enough away so they would not be up for assault. I have worked in a corporate, male dominated environments for most of my working life and have seen many men behave like spoilt little boys. Yelling and throwing things, banging the desk and trying to intimidate me with their size. It didn’t work.
You don’t need to be physically intimated to feel threatened. Many times I have been in meetings or groups where the men towered over me because they were very tall or they were both tall and broad sturdy men. I know that for some people, this could have an effect on you and make you feel very small indeed and, sometimes this can make people feel intimidated or threatened. People respond differently when they feel like this and it could be that the person feeling threatened feels nervous and displays behaviour that they wouldn’t normally – like talking in a high-pitched voice, or yelling, or crying and even anger. I guess feeling intimated by the physical size of someone can also make you feel insecure and we often see this in the workplace with men who are short. I call this “small man’s disease” (sometimes known as short mans disease). Instead of this man relaxing in the knowledge that they are short, they over compensate and often this translates to controlling ego driven behaviour which is just borne out of their own insecurity about their size. Interestingly, you don’t hear people refer to “small womans disease” and maybe this is because woman are not expected to be big, but that is a whole other subject.
Once, I even had a male fellow worker physically pick me up (like you would nurse a baby) with both his arms underneath my back and legs and dangle me over the stair well because I had disagreed with him in a meeting. Of course he thought it was funny, but he didn’t think it was too funny for too long!
How do we deal with physical intimidation in the workforce?
In the examples that I have given above with someone shaking their fists in your face, or standing too close to you for comfort, you have to stay calm. You should speak quietly but firmly and tell the person to back off and tell them that this is not acceptable behaviour. You can tell them that you would be happy to speak to them but this is not appropriate. Stay in full view of people and do not let this aggressive person get you alone in a meeting room or office. You must stay calm and not show fear. When they have moved away, again repeat that this is not appropriate behaviour. I find it best that you don’t look up at them from a close range if you are really short like me because it only weakens your position. Instead, move away and sit at a table; invite the person to join you so you have a better chance of looking at them face to face. If that is not possible, move back a step or two until your neck is not craned so much as this appearance just mimics a woman/male embrace and is not helpful. If the person will not listen and continues to speak loudly or intimate with their physical size, walk away from them and join other people in the office. Return to your desk and write a short description of the event and report the person to your manager or human resources department.
I have found that remaining calm and fearless stops the behaviour but you need to be careful that you understand whether you just feel intimidated because of your own insecurity about your physical size or if the person is using their physical size to actively intimate. For me, once I have spoken to the person about the issue it ceases to exist and many (men) don’t even realise that it is a thing in the first place.
In the second example that I give above, where the fellow worker was dangling me over the stair well, this was what I did;
I tried to stay calm, but firmly told the person to put me down. I decided that I was best to stay still and not struggle as that would only have made me look silly. This was a very large man and I just looked like a small ten-year old child in his arms, so struggling was not going to make any difference in that circumstance and to make matters worse there were a number of other men thinking that this was funny. When he had put me down, I very firmly told him that he had assaulted me and that it was not acceptable. I had witnesses and would seek legal advice. I explained to him why the action that he had taken was not funny and why I was not going to be forced to do anything whilst being pressured physically. This man was my boss and I needed to get an understanding from him that he understood what he had done was wrong and to make sure that it would not happen again. Fortunately, we were able to work this through which resulted in a positive working relationship from then on.
We have to accept that in our current society, size, beauty and money are power. It is a matter of understanding this and working on strategies to negate the effect on us and our careers. We all know examples of some pretty ugly short people who are incredibly successful, so its all about how you feel about yourself and your size and how you deal with physical aggression in the workplace that will ultimately decide your happiness and success at work.