The Balance of Power: From the Gym to the Boardroom, What Martial Arts Has Taught Me


About the author, Beverly Baker:

Beverly’s mother always wanted her to take ballet. Instead Beverly fell in love with the fluid and powerful movements from those super-corny martial arts movies her older brothers used to watch. She aspired to move that beautifully (not including the mismatch of mouths and words caused by English dubbing). Beverly is a 2nd dan black belt in ChaYon Ryu, a Yellow Belt in Krav Maga and has trained in a range of traditional and modern styles including karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, aikido and judo. She lives in Los Angeles, holds an MBA focusing in digital media management and spends her free time road tripping with her boyfriend, Brian.

This is a follow up to her previous Society Nine Storytellers blog, which you can read here.


I was at the gym tonight. This new guy, he was 20-something, was there holding the heavy bag as I was hitting. When I finished he said, "Wow, she really hates men." 

In my teens I would have crumbled at the remark. 

In my 20s I would have clocked him when we sparred. 

In my early 30s I would have said, "Hate men? No, I live life with just as much passion." 

Now in my late 30s, all of these ran sequentially through my mind, but I let them all go. I just kept working out, shrugging his attitude off as his problem, not mine. 

I love being me. 

I jotted that down a few years ago after coming home from my boxing class. I was astonished that a fellow boxing student would equate punching a bag hard with some kind of hatred inside of me and writing those words down helped me put them in perspective. But even more important, it helped me see how far I had come mentally in dealing with these kinds of comments. 

Now in my 40s, I was reminded of this story after a former co-worker encouraged me to write about the cultural bias against strong women. He had read my first blog post for Society Nine and wrote to me in an email:

One of the things I've always admired about you is your confidence and strong presence in meetings and calls. It was really interesting to read your article and realize you may not have always had that, and that martial arts helped you become stronger in other areas of life. I think it's really interesting because a lot of women struggle with confidence in a largely male environment, and are afraid of being perceived as bitchy. I see a lot of articles about this in business and especially in tech, and I’ve learned a lot by talking about it with my girlfriend. It’s a delicate line, and definitely a double standard. But I think you handle it really well! You’re generally upbeat and outgoing and smile a lot so I think it’s hard for people to believe you’re angry or bitchy. People like you! :) 

I think more women would be into martial arts if they knew it could help them be more confident at work or elsewhere. Beyond the techniques, I think there’s a lot of really helpful philosophy with broader applications, like de-escalating a situation before there’s conflict.

I was moved. And he gave me a lot to think about. In training, there is a time for making my partner at ease and comfortable and there is a time to plant my sidekick in their gut. Before I read his note however, I wasn’t aware of how much of that delicate balancing act I brought into my professional life.

But why is it important for women to manage how we’re perceived in the professional world? Shouldn’t we be judged by our merits alone? Unfortunately, study after study demonstrates that women are judged more harshly when we compete in areas traditionally defined as male. Further, while the women who receive the most rewards at work (promotions, etc.) are those who display “masculine” traits, they only reap those rewards if they can soften the edges of their assertiveness.

So just as we often do in martial arts training, women in business face a double bind: If we are too assertive or outspoken, we are labeled as “dangerous,” even as our assertive male counterparts are regarded as “driven.” But if we are perceived as too feminine, we are viewed as weak and ineffective. Our very success can thwart future success as we face negative reactions from our peers. And should we succeed in a traditionally male arena, our reward is being liked less and put down more. This dislike can hurt our careers long term even after we’ve clearly demonstrated our competence.   

Whether I’m training or at work, I’m often in male-dominated environments. If I want to be effective, I have to consider how I’m being perceived and adjust accordingly. For example, in developing business deals, I negotiate hard, but not in a hard way. You could describe my negotiation tactics as akin to the principles of aikido. And then there are the times that I have to take a hardline with an external partner. Perhaps they’ve not delivered on their promises or have otherwise underperformed. As a woman I’m not able to get away with the hard line stance that my male colleagues can. Keeping in mind the consequences discussed above, I still have to set boundaries in such a way that does not damage the relationship. In working with guys in my physical training, who are generally larger and stronger, I’ve learned that my strength comes from attacking creatively, rather than simply head on. While my physical training has taught me to not be afraid to throw a proverbial hard punch, both physically and socially it has also taught me that who I’m working with is critical. Some people are fine with a head-on approach while others need a bit more finesse. While it may not be “fair”, “fairness” really isn’t relevant when there may be important consequences at stake. 

It was through my martial arts training that I first learned to manage these perceptions. Early in my training I began to notice that my assertiveness sometimes elicited reactions that my male training partners don’t have to deal with. Ninety percent of my training partners are cool training with aggressive women. We work together with no problems. The other ten percent peg me as angry or in a bad mood when nothing could be further from the truth. I train not because I’m angry, but because I’m happy. And training makes me happy. How can I be in a bad mood when I’m doing something I love so much?

Dealing with that ten percent — and they aren’t all men, by the way — I’ve had to learn how to balance being serious and focused with being approachable and friendly. As my former co-worker observed, de-escalating a situation isn’t just about physical safety but also about reading the other person and managing their perceptions. In the earlier days of my training, I was terrible at this. I came across as cold because I didn’t want to make small talk in class, but rather stay focused on the drills. Over time, I’ve developed the habit of always giving my partner a big smile before we train and being sensitive to his or her social cues. Now when a partner wants to chit-chat during class, cutting in to our precious training time, my go-to response is: “That sounds great! I’d love to hear more about that after class!” Then we start the drill.

After all this time however, and regardless of my efforts, I’ve seen that I can still be misunderstood. Though more and more women are now training, we all still run into the negative perceptions assertive women face. The most recent came while I waited for some girlfriends after training to head out for our regular “Punch & Brunch” Saturday. As I waited I joined a conversation with a few guys in the lobby. Most of them I had trained with previously, one I didn’t know at all. As one of them, an instructor, described his curriculum for his upcoming sparring class I got excited and asked about his class.

“Oh, do you take sparring classes?” the man I didn’t know asked, surprised. 

“I do, I love it. It’s a lot of fun!” 

The other men joked, “Oh yeah, and she’s tough too.” Then one of them added, “You’ve got to watch out for her. She’s got a lot of hate in her heart.”

I generally let nonsense like that slide. But something about those words stung. I asked, “Would you say that if I were a man who liked sparring class?”

“Well, no,” he stammered.

I didn’t want to make it into a thing, and by his stammer and the sheepish look that came across his face, I saw that he got the point. I recognized those social cues and happily changed the subject.

It was my training that first taught me how to express and harness my physical power. As an unexpected benefit, my training has translated to skills for the business world. Perhaps one-day women won’t need to manage perceptions so carefully. But until that day, I am grateful for my training that helps me walk that fine line. 


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