Women’s History Month along with the launch of affinity groups at my company has me thinking about what it means to be a woman at work. The word woman is uncomfortable for me, primarily because I think it designates a grown-up and I still think of myself as a girl. In a meeting full of men and women, I look around the room and my brain processes my work family as a room of boys and girls – we are all still witty and fun, after all. But I guess if I had to choose how to characterize my affinity I’d say I’m more comfortable with the word female, because it doesn’t come with any implications about maturity.
I’m sure there are many things about working that are common to all of us regardless of our gender. So what, specifically, are the things that are unique to women? I’ve had a very privileged work life, and I’m keenly aware that I have not struggled in the ways so many have – I’ve never worked multiple jobs to survive, had a boss that was abusive, or lacked the safety net and help of family close by. But what I have experienced, what I have felt, are things like these…
I cannot possibly be everything to everyone all the time, and yet I must be. Perfectionism and the desire to succeed are deeply ingrained in me and I know that’s true of many people regardless of gender – but largely I see women connect work promotion to perfection, as opposed to consistent performance. That brings me to I must show I consistently make solid decisions based on data alone, because if I make decisions based on any sort of emotion that’s a “girl” thing to do. Which is crazy because the truth is all of our best decisions are always some combination of data, collaboration, experience and gut instinct (feelings).
The thing I am most afraid to say at work is I don’t know. I don’t know does not sound like an answer a leader gives, and I don’t think it’s an answer that women can give if they want to stay in a leadership role. I logically know it’s sometimes true for everyone, but it does not feel like this is OK for me.
I judge myself the most harshly in the area of motherhood. My children are the most important people in my life and while it feels “right” and normal that my work family would know them so they can really know me, I sometimes fear others will see that I am winging this motherhood thing and have no idea what I am doing, and maybe they’ll think that applies to my work, too.
And that brings me to if people know I have children and see the whole me and know how important my children are to me, will they think I am not “all in” at work? Or if I take time to get the girls to the doctor and orthodontist or just to see them at a fun field day, will people think my work is not a priority? One thing I have noticed, and sometimes envied, about my male colleagues is that they largely don’t give reasons when they take off work. My female colleagues almost always do, as if we are making a bit of an apology – as if reasons have a ranking and we must have an “acceptable” reason to take the time we’ve earned.
If I felt like someone actively wanted me to fail, it was always another female. There are women who want all other women to succeed, even if they don’t particularly like a person, and there’s a kind of collaboration that happens with those women – I think because of an understanding that we can all grow and achieve more if more of us succeed. And then there are women who are so competitive or who so seek the attention of men that it feels like the progress made by the former group is diminished by the latter group, who behave in such stereotypical ways.
In order to get my point across I guess I am going to have to interrupt and repeat myself. However, if I do that will people see me as aggressive and/or bitchy? Maybe they will. Maybe I *am* sometimes aggressive and bitchy. (Actually no maybe there, I am.)
I came across this tweet recently and it really convicted me. I am supposed to be a leader and an example, and I realized that I regularly use this line when I am uncertain if my idea will be well- received: “I don’t know if that made sense.” I guess it would be ok if I said that because I was feeling like maybe my idea was not logical. But I tend to say it when I am certain about what I am saying, but I think it may not go over well. Not good.
Are these sorts of feelings and thoughts even all about or unique to being female? I’m not sure. Perhaps men feel variations of them as well. Maybe the better question is why don’t we talk about this stuff more so our work environments can be places where we all feel safe to be ourselves, to be at our best?
There are so many behaviors we all have and assumptions we all make because of gender, I guess the main a-ha moment for me in this women‘s history month is that it’s not just men that have the assumptions and behaviors. People, not just women, must bring their whole self to work and be their whole self at work and embrace their whole self at work – even and especially when they have feelings like I don’t know. That means more men and women have to work hard to foster environments where everyone can do that. Where everyone can just be honest – that they are some sweet and some sour, some quiet and some loud, some smart and some clueless, some confidence and some insecurity, some strengths and some weaknesses. Perhaps the key to more successful businesses, family lives, relationships and equality in all of those arenas is environments where people feel free and confident to be themselves, so their best ideas can be spoken and acted on.