I’ve never been much of a girlie-girl. Except for when my stylishly feminine mother directly controlled my clothing choices [see photo], I’ve been more businesslike in both clothing and demeanor. Early in my career, this no-nonsense, button down approach served me well. I entered the workforce during the Dress for Success era, when business women were counseled to wear what amounted to feminized versions of the male 3-piece suit: a dark skirted suit accessorized with a floppy silk “bow tie,” high heels and pantyhose.
Along with the sartorial advice came other business gems for “fitting in” to the predominantly male business world: take up more physical space, don’t end your statements with upward inflection and no matter what – never, ever cry. Back in the mid-1980’s, that was the way of the workplace. For the most part, it wasn’t a problem for me because I was, well, not very feminine. Moreover, I wanted to succeed. So, a little modification and sublimation here and there didn’t seem too steep a price to pay for increasing responsibility and plum job assignments.
Fast forward two decades. It’s now 2010 and one might think the advice I followed twenty years ago is out-of-date. To my way of thinking it is. But to others, it seems the “act like a man” mantra still resonates. Books like Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman continue to line bookstore shelves. Just a few weeks ago I read a blog post, written by a man, that said if women wanted to appear more powerful they should, “take up more physical space and quit ending their sentences with an upward inflection.” It’s déjà vu all over again!
Even though the same stale “success” advice is being doled out, I now have the wisdom and perspective to ignore it. Since the days of my dress-for-success suit, I’ve become a wife, a manager, a mother. I’ve buried my in-laws and grandparents and have struggled with health challenges. I now own a business and employee sub-contractors. Business deals have fallen through, projects have failed. I’ve logged countless hours in community service. Colleagues have both cheered me on and thrown me under the bus. Twenty years of living has helped me get very clear about who I am and what I will (and won’t) tolerate.
Like you, I’ve racked up some serious miles on my journey through life. It’s made me who I am: a strong, confident, woman ready to bring my whole self to the workplace. I no longer act like someone else’s version of “success”— male or female. I won’t apologize for talking about snagging a great pair of shoes on sale, nor will I pretend to enjoy discussions about sporting events. I will be me, which as it turns out, still isn’t ultra-feminine, but is 100% female.
For my fellow Women of HR readers, I encourage you to bring your best self to work, including (especially!) your womanhood. If where you are right now requires you to fundamentally change the essence of who you are, it’s time to start planning an exit strategy. Don’t be afraid to “woman up” and find a place that will embrace all of who you are, be it girlie-girl, super-jock or something in between.
[…] “masculine” archetype was the business model to aspire to. This was certainly my experience when I entered the workforce in the […]
Thanks, Debbie for the affirming feedback. The Women of HR experience has been an exciting new venture. I look forward to getting to know my fellow contributors (like you!) better.
Bravo- Jennifer- excellent post! Thank you!
Yes, this is (in Ava’s words) a very “juicy” discussion! I agree with Ava that “uptalk” (upward inflection) is annoying and sadly, I hear it being used by both genders, especially teens. Ava, I love how you position it as pink or blue “culture”…I had heard it referenced as “feminine” and “masculine”.
Amanda, Adult Development Plateaus- that speaks to Diane’s question: “is this just something each woman has to learn in her own time?” To some degree, the passage of time is needed to earn those battle scars and simply gain some perspective.
Well said. I heard something recently about Adult Development Plateaus. I would imagine some of my confidence comes from finally getting to the point where I don’t mind if someone doesn’t like me or think I ought to be the way I am. But most of my confidence comes from another woman who in that era of Dress for Success told me that it was a bunch of hooey.
Just say no to silky bow tie blouses!
This is such a juicy discussion!
These days, when I speak to women, I talk more about “pink culture” and “blue culture,” rather than men and women. Each culture has a set of characteristics and communication norms. And rather than an “either/or,” it’s generally a continuum.
I tell women that they need to be bi-cultural. They need to be able to operate and communicate effectively with people from both cultures.
Obviously, younger women don’t have to imitate men by doing the “blue suit/ floppy bow tie /pumps” uniform that many of us did. But there’s still assimilation required in many industries.
Fortunately, there’s an entire body of research that shows that some of the more traditionally female leadership traits are benefiting companies’ bottom lines in a big way. When I share this data with my women audiences, it really feels validating for many women. They get pretty excited!
But I have to admit. I hate the upward inflection at the end of sentences. I think it makes women sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I advise women to change that behavior, along with losing “tentative language.”
Thanks for this great post!
Your question is a good one. Having not been in the work force for quite a while now, I’m not really in a good position to observe. I have a hunch though, for what it’s worth.
My hunch is that it probably depends very much on the size of the organization and how deeply entrenched it is in its culture. Very large and more traditional organizations (like financial institutions for example )in my experience, take longer to “come around” to new perspectives. While more and more women are moving into senior positions in these monolithic organizations, I suspect that many still struggle with the issue you have highlighted here because the culture and expectations have not kept pace with this trend.
So, while there may be enlightenment in many workplaces, there is still value in highlighting past experiences and future intention for those who are in less than enlightened circumstances.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your wisdom. Regarding the conveyance of this wisdom– I think it never hurts to share “lessons” learned; a nugget here and there may be just the thing that will help move someone forward.
I do wonder, however, if this post has much value for women who are in their 20’s/early 30’s. It seems to me that they may not be able to relate much to having to modify their female-ness to fit into the work place. Is that an outdated notion?
This is such an important message to all women. I think too that while we may be advised by some to “play like a man” it is an exhausting and it doesn’t work!
Thank you for highlighting something that has been with us for too long.
I love this post! It’s so much fun to hear about the journey of others and the lessons learned. As I read your post I was reminded of what Mike Henry Sr. says about leading from within. For me, that statement rings true. It took me awhile to get over the fact that some people won’t accept me for me and realize that others will. Every day I challenge myself to reveal who I am at my core. I find peace and success when I act in alignment with my values.
Diane raises an important question, is there a way to convey these lessons to younger women? I think we can make an impact by sharing our experiences like this. Ultimately though the best lessons are those that are learned through your journey.
Thanks for sharing!
So true Jennifer and I relate to much of what you say. There are benefits to being a certain age and becoming more confident in who you are and aplogizing less. I wonder if there is a way to convey that message to younger women or do they just need to arrive on their own?
Thanks and awesome photo!
I came, I read this article, I corneequd.