I had the privilege in June of presenting at two conferences that focus on women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). One of the big topics at both conferences was how to raise the level of participation of women in STEM fields, particularly as they progress to higher levels of management and leadership, since the numbers of women in STEM are already low.
One of the strategies often proposed is, “It’s a man’s world, so here are the rules of that world, and you must adapt to them.” There was at least one presentation I saw that advocated this approach, and there are many books that do the same. The presentation advised the primarily female audience, “You can’t do what is comfortable for you, you must do what is comfortable for them.” This was followed by the speaker’s statement, “I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s what works.” I know that the speaker was coming from a place of good intentions, of wanting professional women to succeed, but my heart dropped when I heard that advice.
As a leadership coach, I advocate leadership development starting with knowing yourself, and acting from that place. Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones tell the executives that they coach to, “Be yourselves—more—with skill.” And Bill George, et al., advise, “You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else.” If we tell leaders that to be at their best, they should be themselves, why would we give women potentially contradictory advice in telling them to adapt?
People, not just women, frequently tell me, but we all have to adapt to a certain extent at work – to organizational culture, to written and unwritten rules. But there is a distinction between observing the professional norms of your workplace and being asked to adopt behaviors that move you away from your best self. Adhering to professional norms for your organization might mean that you wear suits because your clients do, or you arrive by 9am because that’s when the workday begins. Being your best self means not compromising who you inherently are. We do this when we bury our strengths, ignore our values, and are not honest about our perspectives. And we need to ask ourselves if adapting to our environment compromises us. This is not necessarily a simple exercise with straightforward answers. Maybe wearing a suit and adhering to a 9-to-5 schedule does go against your core values. Maybe not asserting your voice at a meeting meets the status quo but also means you are not seen for your valuable perspective or expertise. Compromising who you are is weakening; knowing who you are and acting from that place is empowering.
If we tell women to adapt to suit the environment around them, we risk moving them away from knowing and being their best selves. Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of AFC Enterprises, the franchisor of Popeyes, has found this to be true from her own experience: “The thing I wish I had learned at a younger age is the importance of bringing your authentic self to your leadership and your workplace. Women spend a lot of years trying to figure out: What do I have to do to make these people happy? What behaviors are expected of me? We spend all our energy trying to give them what they want. It totally distracts us from our best selves.”
I hope that we encourage people, especially women, to ask themselves if they are merely adhering to professional norms or not being true to themselves. Only then can we know if we are compromising who we inherently are, and keeping us from being our best selves.
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