I’m perpetually grateful to have a stable job that I love. I’m good at it and feel recognized and valued for the work that I do (and I’m fairly compensated, which really spikes that job happiness indicator all the way up). I have ample opportunity for professional development, and I’m encouraged to take advantage of all the workshops and conferences that come my way.
Recently, I’ve been attending a series of workshops for “Women Leaders” and they’ve left me feeling… less than impressed. After every session, I leave feeling like we didn’t have a truly nuanced conversation. The most recent one involved me sitting at a table being told the myriad ways in which millennials (ie: me) are lazy and self-involved. That’s a tired, baseless argument and doesn’t in any way help a group of women succeed in the workplace.
At one of these workshops, someone suggested we all read the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. The woman who suggested it was quick to point out that the title is jarring but promised it was full of really useful advice for us. I was skeptical, but I borrowed a copy from the library. The subtitle, 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers sums up the entire book. It really is just 101 “mistakes” followed by advice on how to correct our behavior. And the “mistakes” are things like having a dish of candy on your desk and not wearing makeup.
We need to reframe the conversation. Instead of focusing on the 101 (101!) ways women should be, we need to address the underlying cause of gender discrimination in the workplace. Because I can promise you that hiding jolly ranchers in our desk drawers and switching to a $30 tube of mascara isn’t going to solve it.
I work in IT, and it’s as stereotypically male and casual as you might imagine. I’m often the only woman in a meeting, and definitely the only one in a skirt. It’s easy for me to discard this book and its laundry list of required changes, because I work in such a supportive and generally laid-back environment. My boss evaluates all of us on the merit of our work, not the extent to which we do or do not wear colors that flatter our skin-tones. I’m lucky because in my team, that doesn’t matter. I know it matters in a lot of places– I don’t want to discredit that. But I also know that reinventing ourselves as Professional Stepford Wives is like slapping a bandaid on a bullet hole. (Ugh, Taylor Swift, your silly lyric is invading my life.)
Even though I generally don’t have to worry about these things in my job, I’m not immune. A few weeks ago, my boss was checking in and said, “You’re doing a great job. Although… people find you very intimidating. They know you’re extremely competent but in general, yeah, you intimidate people.” Instead of feeling completely empowered… I totally freaked out. Even though he went on to say that he thought it was a good thing and I could use it to my advantage, all I was hearing was that people didn’t particularly like me. And I hated that!
I can’t decide what about me is intimidating in the workplace and how concerned I should be about it. I refuse to modify my speech patterns or ‘feminize’ my ideas/comments/requests in meetings, even though I know that makes some dudes bristle and I see most women at my office doing that. Or maybe it’s my resting bitch face? I can’t help my face! Or maybe my shyness is being interpreted as bitchiness?? Ugh!
I pressed my boss and it turns out that the men I work with think of me as a pal. We’re all work buddies. It’s actually the women in various other departments who think I’m a big ol unlikable weirdo. And I’ve found myself wondering if I should tweak things about myself—maybe if I don’t point out ways we can be less sexist (omg, we do NOT need to dye the lemonade BLUE because it’s a baby shower for a boy) people will think I’m more fun and less of a killjoy? But should I even care?
I think that if we want to change the system, we need to do it by being ourselves. Nice girls can and should get corner offices. We need to stop buying into the narrative that being feminine is a barrier to success. Because if we keep telling each other and ourselves that, it only reaffirms that narrative. So if you’re a nice girl, keep being a nice girl. If you’re a badass bitch, keep being one. (I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, by the way.) We need to let our work be judged on its value and merit– our workplace expertise should take precedence over our ability to be experts at accessorizing. I think we all need to start articulating exactly that, instead of trying to change 101 aspects of ourselves and hoping that works.