At this moment in my life I am on the receiving end of a lot of advice. I am beginning my career as a film director and it's hard -- tough industry, big ambitions. Oh, and I'm a woman. In 2014 women directed only 17 (6.8 percent) of the 250 highest grossing movies. The odds aren't exactly in my favor. I get a lot of lunch, and coffee, and drinks with other filmmakers to ask questions and hear their stories. On one of these dates -- a midday coffee break with a successful female film programmer -- I received a piece of advice that stuck with me. We were saying our goodbyes and she left me with this: "You have to act like a man." Her words left me confused and a little angry. I hadn't been aware that I was acting like a woman.
Turn back the clock two years. Senior year of college I started hooking up with my now girlfriend. At first it was a secret. We snuck into each other's rooms long after our friends had gone to bed and stole whatever time we could to make-out in abandoned classrooms around campus for three months before we started telling people. I am truly lucky to be surrounded by allies -- my "coming out" process was painless. In fact, the hardest part by far was getting over my own internalized homophobia. How could I all of a sudden be gay when I'd never been in the closet? How could my identity change so abruptly when I didn't feel any different? The "not feeling different" was what really confused me. I had to get over the fact that people were inevitably going to think about me differently when the only change of any consequence was that I'd fallen in love.
In the span of three months I became part of a marginalized group I never previously identified with. I lost my majority status, and with it the privilege of taking my identity for granted. Straight people never have to tell anyone they are straight, white people never have to think about their whiteness, and men, at least professionally, do not have to ask themselves if they are acting a certain way because they are men.
After the "act like a man" coffee date I started thinking closely about the advice that prominent successful women propagate to young women in the workforce. In recent years the discourse seems to have shifted to focus more on the internal barriers women impose upon themselves. Take Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In campaign and The Confidence Gap by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman for example. Both of these very popular commentaries examined how women, unlike men, bar themselves from the corner office by leaning back or lacking confidence. They advised action above all else -- go for the promotion, sit at the table, own your success. I swore to myself that I would never be too scared to act, that I would not add density to the population of under-confident overlooked female professionals. So when my coffee date inferred that I had been acting like a woman I felt deflated and inadequate.
In a recent interview Amy Poehler said,
"I've been doing this thing lately where I try to talk slower at meetings. I take a lot of meetings with women and we all talk really fast. But every guy talks so much slower. Maybe there's a scientist who could tell me why, but I think men are just a little bit more comfortable taking up conversational real estate."
The goal is to be confident. The goal is to take up the real estate we know we deserve. The goal is to act like men act. But here's the thing, I'm not a man. I don't talk like a man, I don't act like a man, I will never be a man. What if I talk fast and loose, and gab, and giggle, and I am confident in every word that comes out of my mouth? Does my femininity preclude the possibility that I am self-assured?
The evidence is clear: women overall are less confident and assertive than men. But instead of focusing on how women hold themselves back, let's ask why. Why do we statistically lack confidence? Why do we keep our heads down and stay quiet at meetings? Maybe we lean back because deep down we are scared that when we finally lean in and speak up we will act like women. And maybe even deeper down we believe that acting like a woman is the wrong way to act.
I've realized that my own internalized misogyny is far more entrenched than my internalized homophobia ever was. But when so much of the advice I hear from successful women concludes with deferring or comparing to men, it's not hard to understand why. I refuse to tie my failures to my femininity. I may act different than my male colleagues, and I will certainly make mistakes, but the two are in no way connected. I will go for the promotion, I will lean in, I will be confident, and I will do it all while acting like a woman.