Written by: Abby Dryer, PMP
Everyone has their own personal bias, snap judgments and assumptions. The fact that when I enter someone’s office I may look like a young, naive girl in a suit means that I have two choices. I can meet that person’s expectations, acting unsure and potentially afraid or lost; or I can surprise them with what I really am: a dedicated, strong leader that has moved mountains to achieve my goals.
Many women will want to choose to portray the strong leader; to break the stereotype and move women further up through the glass ceiling. However, I’ve found that approach does not always work. It can intimidate people, causing them to immediately get defensive, which is counterproductive to getting anything done; or it is used as an example of why women can’t be successful – they’re just too headstrong! On the other hand, if you allow people to think that you are lost and naive, your career may stagnate until you can prove that you are indeed an effective leader. It is important to find the balance.
How can you find the balance? First, it is important to ‘know your audience’. Is there someone in the office who falls into the stereotype of thinking that women belong at home while the men belong in the office? (trust me, they’re still out there) Again, a typical knee-jerk reaction is to do everything in your power to ‘help’ that person understand that you deserve to be where you are, and that you do your job very well. This can lead to many frustrated conversations that never seem to end the way you want them to. Conversely, I have found it effective to ask that person for advice. Present a problem to that person as something that you are really struggling with, and perhaps this person can help you find the right answer. It’s not important whether or not the issue is a large issue, or even if it’s an issue that you couldn’t solve. What is important is that you are giving that person the opportunity really take a look at you and to see what you really are, including the parts of you that don’t fit into their box.
Eventually, that person may come to see your leadership skills, determination, and effectiveness; despite the fact that at first, all they saw was a naive girl in a suit.
Abby Dryer, PMP is a Chicago-based Project Manager, specializing in system integration. She focuses much of her energy on team-building and morale – as a cohesive team with high morale can be a determining factor in the success or failure of a project. You can read more of her musings at http://pmbabble.wordpress.com/by
Very wise advice, Abby! Although I rankle at any woman still having to play games to get accepted as a women in the business environment, what you suggest is actually very effective. When someone helps us it builds rapport between them and us. And I’ve found in the past that I’ve been a bit too quick to judge as “Neanderthal” some people who seem intimidated by my strong personality. Sometimes it wasn’t anything to do with my gender – it’s just that I’m a very strong personality regardless of whether I were a man or a woman. I’ve learned to be more sensitive to my impact on other people. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to give up being unapologetic for being socially unacceptable and politically incorrect in my scrappiness, but I will think about my impact on others and take that into account in my decisions about where and when to be scrappy. Nevertheless, I imagine a lot of people will still be uncomfortable around me, which is fine . . . after all, there are 7 billion people on Earth. Even if 90% of them have an aversion to me I’ll still have a half a billion potential friends. That’s plenty!
Great insight Abby, and Kimberly I’ve had the secret enjoyment of catching people’s reaction to you – nad it’s very revealing!! I personally find it a powerful exercise to LEAVE a room UNDERESTIMATED. Challenging, but worthwhile.