For the longest time, I never quite understood women’s rights activists in modern day America. While I recognized and staunchly disagreed with the way women were mistreated in other countries, I just didn’t feel that women today in America had reason to even whimper a complaint. To me, women talking about women’s issues was what created an “issue” in the first place.
It didn’t help that personally, I had never experienced injustice based on my sex. In fact, most of my activities and interests were ones in which girls were a majority and girls excelled. Sometimes more than boys. These included areas of studies like the liberal arts and extra curricular activities like dance and choir. In hindsight, most of my day-to-day was estrogen-filled. Psychology was a female-dominated major and my sports and performing arts teams were typically all-female.
It was when I entered the world of technology that I truly experienced a predominantly male society for the first time.
Last summer, I took a week off to visit my grandfather in Bangalore. As I waited at the terminal for my return flight, I flipped through The Design of Everyday Things on my iPad. Either my device or the content caught the eye of a middle-aged gentleman next to me who casually asked for my thoughts on the design of the Singapore Airlines website. It is miserable I returned definitively. I agree. What didn’t you like? He asked with a half smile. It turned out that he was a web design consultant for Singapore Airlines (oops) but we had a wonderfully insightful conversation about usability and user experience (and he agreed that the website needed remedial help. Otherwise I would have no job! he joked). Once back at work, thrilled to share the wonderful nuggets of wisdom we exchanged, I told several colleagues the story.
Imagine my surprise when my story completely flopped. The irony, the foot-in-mouth moment when I found out he worked for Singapore Airlines, the awkwardness of his reading my book over my shoulder, all was lost on my audience. Silence. Finally, someone (a male) spoke. You know, I highly doubt it was your thoughts on usability that he wanted. I was shocked. Mostly because I am convinced that had I been a male, this story would have come across as one of successful networking or in the least, travel humor. It just certainly wouldn’t have been one of flirtation.
Shortly thereafter, I was leaving the cafeteria after having lunch with a male manager. Apparently a lady several tables away had been calling his name but having been engrossed in conversation and surrounded by several other conversations, we had not heard her. Finally, we noticed her and stopped at her table on the way out. What, so you’re eating lunch with a pretty girl and you just ignore everyone else around you? The lady asked him. Naturally, I felt extremely comfortable. What perhaps may have been intended to be an extremely backhanded compliment made me feel insulted. If I had been a male, and my manager a woman, I can hardly imagine someone would have accused her of ignoring others while having lunch with a “hot guy.” (My manager brushed it off extremely well, in case you’re wondering).
It was around this time, about a year after joining the corporate world, that I began to question whether my gender could inhibit my rising up the corporate ladder. I had received feedback that I was “too nice” and “submissive” and “smart but not aggressive enough.” Upon some self-reflection, I realized that I care too much about others’ emotions and feelings to be the opposite of these words. I, for the first time, felt the need for strong female leaders to emulate. I just couldn’t identify with some of the key tendencies of strong male leaders. There’s gotta be a feminine way to get where I want to get, I thought.
Right around the time that I was trudging through the slump of regret for not having chosen teaching over technology, I came across this article on exploiting beauty in the workplace (note: this absolutely does not mean being inappropriate). I highly recommend the read, which essentially turns feminism on its back by suggesting that women can actually use their sex appeal to get ahead in the workplace. I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the views of this article, but I do to some extent. The author argues, “Women are more charming, more graceful in social interaction, and have more social intelligence than men, but they don’t exploit those advantages. Men, on the other hand, have no compunction about using every asset to get ahead in their careers and have no embarrassment about reaping the benefits.”
Since the aforementioned slump, I’ve continually sought out strong female managers and role models in the workplace. They’ve demonstrated to me the importance of retaining feminine qualities both in the workplace and in your personal life. For them, career advice means not only navigating the corporate world but also thinking about how it will intersect with a future “personal” careers, say, in motherhood. Given that my mother left the corporate world to fully devote herself to me and my brother until we were in high school, this advice is not played to deaf ears.
The first day I met my current manager, we talked about how we are perceived by others, what we like about the perception and what we’re trying to change. People know that I’ll get things done and they see me as a leader. But I’m also seen as maternal. I’m really trying to shirk that one. She continued by explaining that she had not only just had a child, but when the leader of the group had unexpectedly passed away, she had been the mother hen helping the team through it. All the while she was explaining, I couldn’t help but think that maternal was not only “not bad,” but quite a wonderful quality to have, even in the workplace. To be able to bring a team together in a time of hardship — that’s a huge deal, and not anyone can do it.
Better yet, when I tried to communicate the connotation of “maternal” to a guy friend, he simply didn’t get it. Why is your manager trying to change that? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The concrete moments in which I am reminded of my femininity at work have certainly not subsided. A few days ago, I came across this article on how girls’ success in school does not translate to success in business. Just today as I was speaking in a meeting, someone commented, “Sorry, I didn’t hear a word you said. I was distracted by how cute your dress is.”
What has subsided, however, is my feeling like these concrete moments are noteworthy events. The more we as women make them a big deal, the more we women accept feminine words like “maternal”to be negative, the bigger a deal this becomes.
I’ve only been in this world for a little more than a year, but I can already see that it’s not about changing man’s perception of women. It’s about changing the woman mindset itself. In striving to be like men, we will only ever be an inferior version. But in striving to be successful corporate women, we have the opportunity to be truly superior.