I love that International Women’s Day affords us a special opportunity to celebrate the achievements of fabulous women around the world but it is also a timely reminder that we have a long way to go in our fight for equality.
IWD also meant there was a multitude of women’s events, both with and without male participants, and I love these. Emotional openness is for me the primary difference between a large group of men and a large group of women. Of course this is not the difference between every individual man and individual woman, as we all exist on a spectrum of personality traits, but it is my observation of large groups dominated by one gender or the other. I also think it is particularly noticeable when you have spent most of your career outnumbered by men.
Success on men’s terms
Having spent my career in finance, in rooms dominated by men I had become increasingly accustomed to the combative nature of that environment, where everything is about competition and one-upmanship. And for a woman to succeed in that environment has often meant that she has had to wear a mask everyday because to appear too feminine would be the kiss of death, although of course if she gets too tough she is accused of being a “ball-breaker”.
I recall that as a junior accountant in a top accountancy firm in London I knew only one female partner. Now I thought she was fabulous because she wore beautiful expensive clothes and drove a flashy sports car but it did not escape my notice that she had never had a family. At the time I was much keener for financial independence than babies so it wasn’t immediately relevant but still that stuck in the back of my mind. Conversely the only female senior manager in our department had just had a baby but she was an aggressive woman who had come back to work within two weeks of giving birth, seemingly to prove that her career was just as important as any man’s (and of course it was). To succeed you had to compete on men’s terms.
In my twenties I was told by a recruitment consultant that I should wear glasses or tie my hair up because I looked too “girly”, and wouldn’t be taken seriously enough by potential employers. And an unwillingness to take up golf was surely the kiss of death to a promotion!
Now clearly things have improved since then but too often women are still expected to conform to the “merit” criteria of men.
And embracing so much of your own masculinity in order to look and behave the “right” way can play havoc with a woman’s sense of self.
Which mask today?
Of course both men and women assume different roles throughout their lives: student / employee / boss / parent / partner / child, and we often feel like we have to show up with a different mask for each occasion but my own experience has been that women feel this most acutely (and more acutely than men) when they become a mother.
Suddenly you are fully tapping into all your most feminine traits such as empathy, nurturing, compassion but you are afraid to bring these to work because with them comes an emotional vulnerability, which could get you written off as “too emotional”, “a bit unstable” or “hysterical”. You have spent years burying this stuff deep inside and now your babies have made you raw and it gets increasingly hard to wear a mask but at the same time you still want to get out of the house and have intellectual stimulation and enjoy office banter. I struggled enormously with this confused identity when I first returned to work part-time after having a baby, and although wearing different masks in each role, each of those masks were designed to say I’m ok, I can handle this. I was brought up to believe I could be a woman who could have it all but wearing the mask meant I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) ask for help (for my views on trying to play superwoman see my earlier blog). One of the keys for me to let go of this has been surrounding myself with women telling their stories openly and honestly.
This is why I believe the move towards authentic and whole-hearted leadership is so important. If we can bring our whole selves to the workplace with all our vulnerabilities then we will also be able to connect on a much deeper level with those around us. This can only benefit all of the relationships in our lives. And all the evidence shows that the more inclusive and diverse our workplaces the better the bottom line.
Of course, along with the vulnerabilities we need to ensure we have the self-awareness and social intelligence to ensure that we share appropriately for context and listen to and learn from those around us. That’s is why these skills are at the core of all the coaching and leadership development work I do.
I am now learning to remove the masks (it’s still a work in progress!) so that I can truly step into being the person I want to be and I am absolutely passionate about helping other people to do the same.
Which masks are you wearing today?
If you would like support in re-discovering who you are and finding a way forward to being the leader you want to be please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org
Sue runs sue rosen executive coaching and specialises in helping people unleash the power of their potential.