Female attitudes in the workplace

Why do smart, capable women act in ways detrimental to their career mobility (not to mention mental health)? During my career, working with literally thousands of professional men and women and comparing their behaviors, I found the answer to that question through inquiry and study: From early childhood, girls are taught that their well-being and ultimate success are contingent upon acting in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant, and relationship-oriented. Throughout their lifetimes, this is reinforced through media, family, and social messages.

It’s not that women consciously act in self-sabotaging ways; they simply act in ways consistent with their learning experiences. Even women who proclaim to have gotten “the right”messages in childhood from parents who encouraged them to achieve their full potential by becoming anything they want to be find that when they enter the real world, all bets are off. This is particularly true for many African American women who grew up with strong mothers.

Whether by example or encouragement, if a woman exhibits confidence and courage on a par with a man, she is often accused of being that dreaded “b-word.” Attempts to act counter to social stereotypes are frequently met with ridicule, disapproval, and scorn.

Whether it was Mom’s message—“Boys don’t like girls who are too loud”—or, in response to an angry outburst, a spouse’s message—“What’s the matter? Is it that time of the month?”—women are continually bombarded with negative reinforcement for acting in any manner contrary to what they were taught in girlhood. As a result, they learn that acting like a “nice girl”is less painful than assuming behaviors more appropriate for adult women (and totally acceptable for boys and adult men).

In short, women wind up acting like little girls, even after they’re grown up.

Now, is this to say gender bias no longer exists in the workplace? Not at all. The statistics speak for themselves. Additionally, women are more likely to be overlooked for developmental assignments and promotions to senior levels of an organization. Research shows that on performance evaluation ratings, women consistently score less favorably than men. These are the realities.

But after all these years I continue to go to the place of “So what?” We can rationalize, defend, and bemoan these facts, or we can acknowledge that these are the realities within which we must work. Rationalizing, defending, and bemoaning won’t get us where we want to be. They become excuses for staying where we are.

Although there are plenty of mistakes made by both men and women that hold them back, there are a unique set of mistakes made predominantly by women. Whether I’m working in Jakarta, Oslo, Prague, Frankfurt, Trinidad, or Houston, I’m amazed to watch women across cultures make the same mistakes at work. They may be more exaggerated in Hong Kong than in Los Angeles, but they’re variations on the same theme. And I know these are mistakes because once women address them and begin to act differently, their career paths take wonderful turns they never thought possible.

So why do women stay in the place of girlhood long after it’s productive for them? One reason is because we’ve been taught that acting like a nice girl—even when we’re grown up—isn’t such a bad thing. Girls get taken care of in ways boys don’t. Girls aren’t expected to fend for or take care of themselves—others do that for them. Sugar and spice and everything nice—that’s what little girls are made of. Who doesn’t want to be everything nice? People like girls. Men want to protect you. Cuddly or sweet, tall or tan, girls don’t ask for much. They’re nice to be around and they’re nice to have around—sort of like pets. Being a girl is certainly easier than being a woman. Girls don’t have to take responsibility for their destiny. Their choices are limited by a narrowly defined scope of expectations.

And here’s another reason why we continue to exhibit the behaviors learned in childhood even when at some level we know they’re holding us back: We can’t see beyond the boundaries that have traditionally circumscribed the parameters of our influence. It’s dangerous to go out-of-bounds. When you do, you get accused of trying to act like a man or being “bitchy.”

All in all, it’s easier to behave in socially acceptable ways. This might also be a good time to dispel the myth that overcoming the nice girl syndrome means you have to be mean and nasty. It’s the question I am asked most often in interviews. Some women have even told me they didn’t read on because they assumed from the title that it must contain suggestions for how to be more like a man. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it literally five hundred times in the last ten years: Nice is necessary for success; it’s simply not sufficient. If you overrely on being nice to the exclusion of developing complementary behaviors, you’ll never achieve your adult goals.

Learn to have a wider variety of responses on which to draw. When we live lives circumscribed by the expectations of others, we live limited lives. What does it really mean to live our lives as girls rather than women? It means we choose behaviors consistent with those that are expected of us rather than those that move us toward fulfillment and self-actualization. Rather than live consciously, we live reactively.

Although we mature physically, we never really mature emotionally. And while this may allow us momentary relief from real-world dilemmas, it never allows us to be fully in control of our destinies. Missed opportunities for career-furthering assignments or promotions arise from acting like the nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood: being reluctant to showcase your capabilities, feeling hesitant to speak in meetings, and working so hard that you forget to build the relationships necessary for long-term success.

These behaviors are magnified in workshops at which men and women are the participants. My work in corporations has allowed me to facilitate both workshops for only women and leadership development programs for mixed groups within the same company. Even women whom I’ve seen act assertively in a group of other women become more passive, compliant, and reticent to speak in a mixed group. When men are around, we dumb down or try to become invisible so as not to incur their wrath.

Recognize these traits in yourself. And never put yourself down again!

Women of Inspiration: Susan Carland

Susan Carland was born in Melbourne, Australia. A writer, sociologist and academic, Carland completed her PhD in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University in Melbourne in 2015. Her research and teaching focus on gender, sociology, terrorism and Islam.

The word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Q. What really matters to you?

What matters to me most – what drives me the most – is service. But I don’t believe service has to be grand; service is not only relevant on the scale of opening an orphanage, but includes those tiny acts of everyday service, whether they be to your own children or to your neighbour. Because the ultimately happy and content life is actually the life that you give away.

There’s a great quote attributed to Muhammad Ali that goes something like, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ That really makes sense to me and is something that I’ve tried to live within myself, though I fail regularly. I’m always telling my children to look for opportunities to help, even if it’s just when they see an older person struggling with a trolley in the supermarket. Because, in the end, a life of service is the only life that makes sense.

Raising my children with strong beliefs and values matters to me. I want them to be happy with who they are, but to never develop a sense of spiritual arrogance; I want them to see the core dignity in every human being and to respect that. It’s not about us and them – Muslim and non-Muslim – because we are all people and can only function as a society if we respect one another. I believe that every person is potentially good, so engaging with people with that in mind allows for respect; without respect, there’s an assumption of superiority – there is no dignity in an interaction like that.

It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt, even when they probably don’t deserve it. It’s about dealing with people with compassion, even when we don’t want to. The challenge is to ask yourself what you can do to try and create the society that you want to be a part of and that you want to see flourish. We must deal with each other with compassion if we are going to counteract what is happening in the world.

I am Muslim. I had a very good experience in the Baptist church growing up, but, when I was seventeen I started to wonder why I believed what I did; I didn’t know whether it was the truth, so I started looking into other religions. There was a lot of noise surrounding Islam – the typical things Westerners and non-Muslims say about it being sexist, outdated and barbaric – but I realised that Islam was in fact the antithesis of what was being presented to me. And what was at the heart of it made a lot of sense. In fact, it felt like a continuation of what I was raised to believe.

After 9/11, I definitely started to feel the burden of the international representation of Islam. I remember people saying, ‘It’ll have to get better soon,’ but the negative representation hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s escalating. But, even when I engage with people who are incredibly rude, I try to remember to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know how often I feel I’ve been wrong or changed my mind, so I have the awareness that other people, too, can change their minds.

Q. What brings you happiness?

It’s when I feel most useful. We live in a society in which there is so much noise and so much pressure for self-promotion and narcissism: ‘Pay attention to me! This is my CV!’ But I find contentment in the quiet life of service, in any capacity.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

True misery is when people have no hope, when they are in a situation they feel they cannot change. But, people can endure anything if they feel there is hope; even in situations of horrific injustice, inequality and fear, if they have hope, they will get through it. And if they don’t have hope, then it’s our responsibility to bring them hope.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change inequality. If you look at every injustice, pain or hurt, it comes from a place of inequality, of people crushing other people on a big level or small – in fact, I would struggle to find any problem in the world that didn’t have inequality at its heart. If we could get rid of that, things would be so different.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?

Hope. Although, if someone were to describe me, they would probably say ‘trying’ – the sense of never achieving and always failing, but of keeping going. But, the word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Women of Inspiration: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of twenty-three books in her native Spanish, which have been translated into thirty-five languages. Her award-winning works include The House of the Spirits, City of the Beasts and the international bestseller, Paula.

Allende has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Chilean National Prize for Literature and the 2014 United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996 – in memory of her daughter, Paula – Allende established the Isabel Allende Foundation to support initiatives aimed at preserving the rights of women and children.

‘People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything.’

Q. What really matters to you?

It’s people – women especially. I have been a feminist – a feminine feminist – all my life, and my main mission has been to care for women; I have a foundation that works for the empowerment of women and girls. Justice matters to me. And stories – I love to listen to people’s stories.

Q. What brings you happiness?

Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

On a universal level – speaking outwardly – I would say that there are many depths of misery, but the worst is probably slavery. When you are a victim of absolute power and are living in constant fear, that is the worst.

On a personal level, I would say that the lowest depth of misery is when something happens to your child and you have absolutely no power to control it. It is when your child is behind a door and you don’t know what someone is doing to her – when you have no say, when you can’t be there and when you can’t even touch her.

My daughter, Paula, had a rare genetic condition called porphyria, which my son and my grandchildren also have. It is manageable and should not be lethal at all. Paula took very good care of herself but, when she was newly married and living in Madrid, she had a porphyria crisis. She went to the hospital, and they f**ked up the whole thing: they gave her the wrong drugs so she fell into a coma, then they didn’t monitor the coma, then they tried to hide their negligence.

For five months, I lived in the corridors of the hospital waiting for them to bring my daughter back to me, and everybody kept promising that she would open her eyes and recover. She suffered severe brain damage. By the time they admitted this and gave me back my daughter, I decided to bring her back to the United States. She was married, but her husband was a young man who couldn’t take care of her. I told him that, in her condition, she was like a newborn baby. I said, ‘Give her back to me.’ He did – that’s something that I will always be grateful for. I was able to bring her back to California on a commercial flight – today that would be impossible, but this was before 9/11. I sectioned off a part of the plane, and we flew with a nurse and all the necessary equipment.

But how do you come into a country with a person who can’t apply for a visa? We came to Washington, DC, where Senator Ted Kennedy sent two people from his staff to wait for me at the airport – I don’t know how, but they got us in. When we got to California, we went directly to the hospital. After a month, it was absolutely certain that Paula wasn’t going to react to anything. She was in a vegetative state, so I brought her home and decided that I would take care of her – because that’s what mothers do. I created a little hospital in the house, and I trained myself – we had her there until she died.

That experience, culminating in Paula’s death, changed me completely. It happened when I turned fifty, which is the end of youth. Menopause followed, so it hit me at a moment when I was ready to change, to finally mature. Up to that point, I had been an internal adolescent. It made me throw everything that was not essential in my life overboard. I let go of everything. With Paula, for example, I let go of her voice, of her charm, of her humour. I cut her hair short, then, eventually, I let go of her body and her spirit, then everything was gone. I learned the lesson that I am not in control.

People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything. When we go, we have nothing and we can take nothing with us. Paula gave me many gifts: the gift of generosity, the gift of patience and the gift of letting go – of acceptance.

Because there are things you can’t change: I couldn’t change the military coup in Chile or the terror brought about by Pinochet; I can’t change Trump; I can’t change the fate of my grandchildren; I can’t change Paula’s death; I can’t even change my dog!

Now, no matter what happens, it is nothing by comparison to the experience of Paula’s death. I loved my husband intensely, for many, many years, but two years ago we separated. When people wanted to commiserate, I thought, ‘This is not even 10 per cent of what I went through with Paula.’ Nothing could be so brutal, to me, at least. It gave me freedom, in a way. It gave me strength and an incredible resilience I never had before.

Prior to that, many things could have wiped me out. ‘Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.’

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change the patriarchy – end it! All my life, I have worked towards a more egalitarian world, one in which both men and women are managing our global society – a place in which feminine values are as important as masculine values.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with? Generosity. Years ago, my therapist said that I had very low self-esteem. He told me to go to ten people and ask them to write five things about me – whatever they wanted. It was a very difficult thing to request from people; it seemed like an exercise in vanity and narcissism, but I did it. Everybody mentioned generosity as my first trait, so maybe there is something true in that. The mantra of my foundation is, ‘What is the most generous thing to do?’ This is because of my daughter. She was a very special person and a psychologist. Whenever I was going through something trying, she would ask me what the most generous action I could take was. She used to say, ‘You only have what you give.’