Leave your Disposition at The Door: A Musing on How We Can Prepare Young Women to Rise Above Bias to Break the Glass Ceiling
About five years ago, I graduated college and entered the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in my back pocket and gallant optimism about the future. Phrases like, “you can be anything you want to be” and “never give up on your dreams” were woven into the fabric of my heart and narrated the soundtrack of my inner voice. These precious tokens of self-belief and confidence were instilled in me since I was a young girl. I found them to be true time and again whether in school or sport or any extracurricular activities. So, with the grit and determination that I had carried with me my whole life, I began my first job. And..reality bit me…hard.
I felt beautiful and unstoppable. But, no one told me about the challenges that my beauty and femininity might cause as a woman pursuing a fulfilling career in an industry like technology that has historically been dominated by men.
Challenges like having your intelligence questioned because of your gender, age, or even hair color. Or fighting to maintain poise when you hear a man make sexist or misogynist comments directed toward another woman in your presence. Or fighting harder to maintain the same poise when the inappropriate comment is directed toward you. Or dealing with the inner struggle of your meek complacency after the offense; because your courage was silenced by fear that you might lose your job if you spoke up for what is right.
Five years later, and here I am; a woman in her mid-twenties with a budding career in cybersecurity technology. However, my relative success has not come without my fair share of stories and scars. I have both stories of triumph and empowerment as a woman in the workplace, and stories of disappointment and defeat when it felt like gender bias claimed an unfair victory. However, I am expectant that my vulnerability in sharing my experience will pave a way for progress and shine a light where women may have personally played a role, however large or small, active or passive; in propagating an unhealthy gender dynamic in the workplace. I am trusting that an increased awareness will effectively create less stories of defeat, and more stories of triumph for female professionals in the future.
My purpose for writing this article is to not only equip young women who are entering the workforce to position themselves for success; but to challenge all who value women’s rights to accept the progress of our gender in corporate America as their own personal responsibility. I am hoping that my honesty emboldens many members of the workplace, whether men or women, to leverage their influence to acknowledge the injustice of bias and replace it with the empowerment of equity.
Preparation is Key
As a woman, however unfair, your credibility may be under more intense scrutiny because of your gender. In many settings in business, you may find you are outnumbered as a woman. This makes it even more important to adequately prepare; whether for a meeting, interview, or presentation. Do your homework beforehand so that you know your facts! Your ability to speak intelligibly and with confidence will speak volumes about your commitment to excellence as a professional. It will also make it harder for your colleagues to assign unfair stereotypes to you for something as shallow as your looks or gender.
Know Before you Go
Companies, especially IT companies, have gotten a reputation for hiring young, attractive women in sales-type, customer facing roles. I would argue that the reason for hiring women for these more outgoing roles might lie more in their natural affinity for making people feel comfortable and valued, while translating complex ideas into simple concepts that can be easily understood by the customer. To put it simply, they have a ‘gift of gab’ that some of their male counterparts might not have.
But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that there is a stereotype that calls the competency of these young and beautiful women into question simply because of the way that they look. As a young woman who has assumed several sales-types roles that allowed me the opportunity to interface with customers, this is a stereotype that I have experienced firsthand. And so, I am fully aware of the injustice and depravity of being sized up as a “pretty face” and dismissed as “not to be taken seriously” because of my appearance.
We live in a culture that bombards women from a very young age with images telling us exactly how we should look to be and feel ‘pretty.’ And, with all of the time we invest in our appearance, it can be difficult for women to separate exterior beauty with a sense of confidence and self-worth. It’s not fair, then, that we live in a culture that tends to dismiss that same “pretty” as “not to be taken seriously” when she walks into a C-suite.
I have a difficult time differentiating this kind of bias with stereotyping someone for another factor outside of a person’s control: like race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. If these factors we have been able to rightly deem as unjust and classify them as illegal to discriminate against regarding terms, conditions, and privileges of employment; then the fair and right thing to do is to assign every employee, regardless of their appearance, with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This means defaulting to the assumption that the person was hired because their intellect, skillset, and experience were a good fit to execute the requirements of the role. Any indication that the individual is underqualified should not be attributed to factors outside of their control like appearance, or, even worse, to other individuals who may share characteristics of this individual’s appearance. Instead, this individual’s ability to perform or lack thereof should be solely attributed to this one individual. If we want to get serious about creating a more inclusive workplace, we need to pause and listen before we make assumptions based only on what we see.
When Life Gives You Lemons
It is easy to become frustrated and resentful when you feel your professional competence is in question based on something outside your control. We have many miles to go to eliminate unhealthy gender dynamics and bias from the workplace completely. Let this gap propel you to become the very best version of you, personally and professionally. Invest in your skills by making time frequently for training, whether it be as formal as a class or conference or as informal as reading a book that relates to your trade. Setting aside windows of time each week to develop competence and increase proficiency will compound over time, and create
opportunities for you to be perceived as a subject matter expert and effectively advance your career. This intentional diligence and resulting growth will enable you to be an inspiration and mentor to other women in the workplace.
Own Your Beauty
Accept you are beautiful in body and mind and embrace it in a way that complements your intellect. Give deliberate attention to your thoughts and words. This begins with you and your own, unspoken inner-narrative. Be mindful of words that you speak to yourself that are not kind, encouraging, or helpful for building you up and empowering you. These negative thoughts can adversely impact your ability to communicate with confidence, and even set the tone for discouraging interactions with your peers. Dismiss these thoughts as untrue and tell them that they don’t belong in your day.
Give the same thoughtful consideration to the words that you speak to and about others in their presence or absence. The respect and dignity that you extend to others has a direct effect on the respect and dignity that your coworkers will ascribe to you.
Dress professionally in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident. Choose a wardrobe that commands the respect of your peers, both male and female.
There is no better way to earn the trust and esteem of your colleagues than to listen attentively and consistently to what they say. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I have found these words to ring true in the corporate world. Listen to the interests and concerns of your colleagues and ask them questions to better understand their perspective. Champion their causes in a way that show you care about their success and well-being. This simple exercise will help you empathize with opinions that are different from your own and strengthen your ability to effectively communicate no matter your surroundings.
Use Your Voice
Once you have developed strong rapport with your peers, don’t shy away from opportunities to speak up for what is important to you, especially as it relates to gender equity. If you see an injustice, speak up about it. In a diplomatic way and in an appropriate setting, voice your ideas about what changes you would like to see. For example, if your boss consistently connects with you in a regularly cadenced meeting, seize this opportunity to discuss how you can create a work culture that prioritizes gender and thought diversity. It’s these small, consistent conversations deposited over time that will accelerate progress and allow women the same shot at career success as their male counterparts.
Leave Margin for Important Conversations
If your company has a culture that prioritizes gender inclusion and diversity as one of its pillars, inquire as to what is being done to make progress in this arena. Find out if there are any focus groups or committees designated to hiring, developing, and promoting women in your organization. If yes, volunteer your time and resources to advance the cause of this group. If no, explore the possibility of starting a group devoted to this movement. Even something as simple as leaving a suggestion box in the breakroom where colleagues can freely express any comments, concerns, questions, or personal experiences related to gender equity. Then, schedule a monthly or quarterly meeting to address the questions and concerns within the box. Discuss possible solutions in a roundtable setting or over lunch.
I hope this article was a useful, educational resource that has at the very least diluted the power of bias to impede progress toward gender equity in the workplace. I also hope it has reminded you of the power you carry as an individual, whether you are entry-level or C-level; to use your voice as a vessel for positive change. And lastly, I hope that each of our individual choices to consider gender equity as our own personal responsibility will spring forth a work culture that allows young women to find that “you can be anything you want to be” is decidedly true in the context of their careers; that we would be diligent in removing any perception or policy that threatens to impede that progress, and our daughters and granddaughters would experience the fairness and freedom of gender equity as a result.
Emily Fernie is a seasoned account manager who has a passion for solving complex business problems with the application of technology. In her current role, she serves as a Business Analyst and Renewals Specialist for Lancope, Cisco. Her experience in marketing and commitment to integrity and excellence allows her to leverage client relationships to drive positive messages through customer channels.
Outside of work, Emily enjoys barre class, spending time with her fiancé, serving on the TAG Young Professional Board, engaging in and serving the church community at Grace Midtown Church, and spoiling her mini goldendoodle, Gus.