In my working world, sexism has gone underground. No longer does a man tell me that I shouldn’t be at work, that I should be at home taking care of my children. This overt tell has been replaced by a subtle, unacknowledged undermining. Now, I am told that I’m very good at what I do … if only I could do something about my personality.
In my speaking practice, I connect with female engineers from across the country and at all stages of their career paths. Nearly universally, professional women receive a lot of feedback on our personalities. Feedback that falls into two camps of critique. The first is that we are too little. The second is that we are too much. Women spend much of their work life trying to land in the impossible middle, a middle that doesn’t really exist.
Women starting their careers are often told they are too little—that they are doing a great job, but, “just need to be more confident.” I recently met a female engineer who was engaging, proactive, and had driven a highly successful event. This was a woman who has been told she should consider careers other than consulting, because “she doesn’t really have the personality for it.”
Even women who are told they are too little usually have some portion of themselves that is too much. That time they got pushed too far and spoke up to their boss. They shouldn’t have emailed, they should have called. They shouldn’t have voiced their opinion so strongly. They shouldn’t have disobeyed the rules of the hierarchy. Because that is what ‘too much’ is really about. It’s a code that means that you stepped out of line, stepped out of the careful, unspoken boundaries of the hierarchy.
In my experience, men mind their own business. If they see a problem in an adjacent unit, they stay out of it, not their problem. If the problem is within their own unit, but they are not in charge, they stay out of it, unless the boss asks them for their input. They seem to lack this compulsive desire to speak truth to power. Those are the rules of the hierarchy.
Women are less hierarchal than men and we have a much harder time obeying the rules of hierarchy. Women believe that all people in an organization should have a voice and that management benefits from understanding “what is really going on.” It doesn’t matter if the problem is in an area they are in charge of. It doesn’t even matter if the problem is in an area they are not involved in. Don’t we all benefit from honest assessment and multiple perspectives?
Lack of adherence to hierarchy makes women more unpredictable, seemingly more difficult to manage, to control. So if women refuse to play by the rules of the hierarchy, how can they be managed and controlled? By telling women in big ways and small ones that they are not enough, that they are too much, that there is something wrong with them. Often these things are not said with conscious maliciousness. It is just a reaction to discomfort, a reaction to someone coloring outside the lines.
So what is a woman to do? To think?
A woman can consider the possibility that she is not too much or too little. She is just different. Not better, not worse, just different. Maybe you are not too much. Maybe you are not too little. It is possible that you already are just right.