I was discussing a cultural aspect of my new company with a mentor recently. Our leaders tell stories as a way to communicate messages. I like the practice – it’s effective. I told my mentor that story-telling is new and not natural for me, and I would like to build that skill. She just smiled at me and pointed out that I’m an author, of course I know how to tell a story (the irony of sharing this story via blog was also not lost on me). Wow, how did I miss that? Women often underplay or underestimate our abilities. In her Harvard Business Review blog, Jodi Glickman reports that women will not apply for jobs when they meet six out of eight criteria, while men who meet only four or five see themselves as strong candidates. Some believe this is a primary reason women continue to be underrepresented in executive ranks. But I didn’t expect to see it in myself. I’ve been successful in male-dominated industries like sporting goods and meatpacking. My mother was a pioneer, leading customer service for a Fortune 500 company, and was elected president of a national professional association. She was a strong role model, and I am a lot like her.
So why did I underestimate my own ability in such a profoundly obvious way? Books I’ve read on gender style and communication differences point to societal pressures from the time we’re girls. Because we’re expected to fit stereotypical norms for women, we don’t take risks. We don’t take credit for our work. We don’t speak up, even when we’re treated unfairly. We don’t negotiate for more pay, and we won’t even sit next to the most powerful person in a room. I don’t do all of these, but I do some of them. And they’re absurd. A phrase from a book I recently read continues to play in my head: “A man would never do that.” That voice has already changed my approach in the short time since I read it.
I’m not a man, nor do I want to be one. But I do want to be given the same opportunities and respect. If I learn to be conscious of when I am doing things which may jeopardize that, I can hopefully work toward the best of both. And in doing so, perhaps I can be a role model for other women looking for their own middle path.
“Women don’t realize how powerful they are.” –Judith Light