Photo Credit: Sarah Beth Studios, San Francisco
I do not belong in a box. I just plainly do not fit in one. I have always known this about myself. There are so many aspects that make up who I am that I would struggle to lose any part of that in my work, my relationships or in my passions. Yet, I have struggled at different times in my life by feeling I was putting myself in one in order to move forward. It spurred a strong desire to share my insights, experiences and bare it all, so to speak, in order to encourage other women to break out of their own box or own set limitations. In order to leverage all that we are as women in our work, in our families and society, we must BE all that we are. It's easier said than done at times when we are trying to land that next job, fit in certain social settings or balance new relationships. How much of whom each of us is as a woman does the world get to see? Do we share fragmented or compartmentalized parts of ourselves to please others? Women need to begin to celebrate all that we are as women, our differences, our contributions to society, our families, our economy and recognize how much value we could add by being true to ourselves, playing to our personal strengths and leveraging off from our multi-dimensions and experiences. Some may argue this is a bit idealistic, yet I am not saying it is an easy path to carve. If we women could each show the world all that we were made of, I do believe mountains would move and we would be poised to excel in more areas of leadership. The time for setting self-limitations must come to an end; we are only hurting ourselves.
There have been many discussions, articles and books written as to how there is still not gender equality, how there is a lack of women in leadership roles, how women are still limited as to what we can do, why we still can't have it all, and so forth. There is a lot of truth in much of what has been written, and I have personally experienced it as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, and also seen many of my corporate clients experience it as a management consultant. Women and men are most definitely different creatures, yet our differences should be embraced and leveraged versus analyzed and listed as a cause to hold us back. Do men sit around and host the discussion whether they can have it all? No. It is highly assumed men do not suffer from a lack of equality, nor do they feel they can't have or go after whatever it is they really want. This mindset of no limitations in what can be accomplished in men has also largely contributed to propel them to move forward. It is going to take a shift in mindset and a shift in behavior in women in order for change, growth and momentum towards equality and establishing a higher presence of leadership to take place. My perspective here is from a North American woman that has had access to education and healthcare; this would all be very different for a woman in a developing country that has not had the same opportunities available. Sadly, in many parts of the developing world, women still have to fight for their right to education, proper healthcare and basic human rights and needs.
In the workplace, strong, driven, ambitious and successful women are often labeled as bitchy and unapproachable as a result of the behaviors they portray. As a consultant, I have seen my female clients at times be overly firm in order to be heard, and seen my male clients act the same way on a day-to-day basis, yet the perception is the male is expressing great leadership and drive while the female is viewed as getting emotional and having an attitude. In my own career, I have struggled with the balance of how "hard" I need to be at work with my clients, with my peers and with my potential investors in order to be heard, taken seriously and respected.
For those that know me well, they know I love to smile constantly. I remember a point in my early consulting career where my former boss asked me not to smile as frequently, as clients would not take me seriously if I did. I took his advice for some time, and I felt I was losing a part of what makes me, ME. I also started wearing frumpy suits that made me look older and less attractive to appear more "serious." I was losing my softness, my femininity, my zestful spirit, and playing a part that was not being true to myself. So, I changed my tune and my consulting style and the way I do business to embrace my strong and ambitious side, but also to highlight my personable, lighthearted and soulful side. I would be lying if I said this approach has been embraced and accepted by all I work with. It is unconventional at times, and I have had to prove myself over the more serious folks or men in the room, but that's OK, because at least I no longer feel like I am playing a role that is so far from what I truly am. I also believe this new path has led me to other professional opportunities that are better-suited for me and allowed others to readily identify my strengths and be able to leverage those. My advice to women in the workforce is that if you are trying to marry your passion with what you do by playing a role that is so far from what you are, it will ultimately just take you further away from opportunities that provide you with more fulfillment and play to your strengths. Of course you will have to be prepared for the naysayers, but good things don't tend to come easy, regardless of gender. Women owe it to themselves to be true to who they are and how they want to work and play the game. By hiding aspects of who they truly are, no one is benefiting.
Another common theme among successful single women is the balance of embracing and being proud of their accomplishments, but not being perceived as intimidating. I have experienced this in my own life and seen many of my very amazing and talented lady friends experience it as well. As a result sometimes we start to hold back from sharing some of the amazing personal experiences and achievements we have had, as we are trying to avoid that "intimidating" label. My hobby outside of work is mountaineering, and yes it requires high endurance and determination. I have been fortunate to climb all over the world and more importantly climbing has given me a voice to talk about women's rights, as I do most of my climbs for charity. I have heard some of the most absurd comments from men as to how my personal accomplishments have made them feel about themselves, which has made for some awkward dates nonetheless, but at the end of the day, climbing is a part of my life and it has brought me so much joy and fulfillment. It is something I should be proud and happy to talk about. I must admit at times some of these comments have also made me feel less feminine, yet deep down I am a girlie girl and I now I can hold my own on a mountain and in a sexy dress. That should not require any justifications. The lessons I have learned from climbing have helped me excel at work, have endurance as an entrepreneur, and provided a new perspective in my personal relationships. I challenge women to bring in their personal passions and hobbies into other areas of their lives. Do not keep each part of yourself in a separate box! It is the combination of all of these things that will make you stand out as a leader in your life and ultimately bring more fulfillment.
Photo Credit: Sarah Beth Studios, San Francisco
So how do we start to break down these stereotypes and perceptions? Can women be strong and fierce at work, yet personable and respected, or must they always be viewed as being bitchy? Do women need to dress a certain way in the business world in order to be taken seriously? I believe it starts with having a voice, speaking your mind and taking an active part in what you think needs to be done in your organization. No matter if you are male or female, each person must build their own credibility at work; we must each prove ourselves in order for our recommendations to be taken into account and so forth. The difference is that many women hold back opinions due to hierarchy, fear and insecurity, while this is less the case among men. So, a first step is having an opinion or recommendation and making it heard versus waiting for someone to ask you. Start establishing your own leadership presence in your own manner that is true to yourself. Be firm when you need to, but do not lose yourself in a role you feel you have to play. Bring the areas that make you, YOU outside of work into your work. Passion and happiness can have such an incredible impact in the quality of work a person does. At the end of the day, it is not our jobs that define us; we are made of so much more. Think of how much more women could bring to the table in the workforce if they would embrace all that they are outside of work in their families, communities and more. They would bring a whole new level of leadership, insight, and contribution.
Can we be smart and sexy and taken seriously? Can we be athletic and adventurous, yet feminine? Can we be caretakers and have careers? At each stage of life, what persona must we play? Do we as women have to continue to choose among one of these, or can we begin to express and excel by bringing to the table all of our talents, passions, intelligence, nurturing, femininity and collaborative spirit? The answer to all of these should be YES, YES, YES! Start embracing who we are as women, and acknowledge how much we have to contribute to our work, families and society. Let's not set limits as to what we can or can't accomplish because we are women. Let's start believing within each of us that we CAN have it all, whatever "ALL" means to each of us, as it is not the same for everyone. It starts with a belief, a mindset shift of removing our self-proposed limits. We do not belong in a box; I know I most certainly do not and am happy I have allowed myself to explore all that I might BE outside of that box.