That was the first thought that ran through my head after I burst into tears during a particularly emotionally charged meeting. Of course, that realization also made me cry.
I am phenomenally lucky to be born into a generation of women who rarely see overt sexism in the workplace and take for granted our ability to become leaders. Being female in the workplace has never held me back. In some ways it’s been an advantage.
Changing sexism at work
Of course, sexism hasn’t disappeared, it has only changed. Hidden in complex company politics is a systematic and undeniable prejudice towards femininity. Or I should say, qualities that are normally associated with femininity like being emotional.
The unwritten rule for women in a mans world
A recent study by the Stanford School of Business defined this problem as a “double bind” or an unwritten rule that women who act in feminine ways are unlikely to be seen as leaders, and women who operate like men are often judged as being bitchy and disliked.
I worked for years to redefine my 9-5 personality. While working alone I turned on my creativity, and learned to manage and hide the inconvenient side-effects that come with being inspired. I stifled any waves of emotion, vulnerability and sensuality. In meetings I learned to boldly speak up and aggressively fight for my projects in order to have a voice in the masculinity-dominated conversation.
Learning office politics
Other young women climbing the ladder learned the same tricks I did. We began to understand when to appear confident, but not aggressive – when to be passive, collaborative and chatty without looking lazy or superficial. Reading the faces and reactions of the men around us became our greatest tool for success. My greatest achievement. It also became emotionally exhausting.
Mapping my career became a part-time obsession. Trying to imagine a path from young creative to thriving feminine leader while staying true to myself and creating work I was proud of seemed an impossibility.
I understand now how a middle aged woman could become stuck in the trap of middle management simply by refusing to play the game.
Femininity for the win
In moments of optimism I looked to a small group of women (and men) who did what they needed to in order to rise, but then led using the same feminine qualities that I believe make organizations thrive. I saw companies built on powerful relationships, decisions made by asking questions and listening, teams that share information and credit equally.
Still, the path to leadership felt increasingly defeating. The qualities that define a great feminine leader can be the very things that make it almost impossible to climb the ladder of success.
I asked the women I respected how I could become a strong leader without compromising my uniquely feminine and emotional self. They told me to get out. To start my own business. To freelance and do contract work where I could manage my own work style.
The new sexism
Sexism has changed. It is no longer the sexism of the twentieth century, where handsy bosses and being called “babe” were acceptable and expected. But the reality is – being an empowered feminine worker in a hierarchical, ego-driven corporate office is still not the norm.
The system is broken when we cannot break the double bind of being feminine at work. We shouldn’t have to choose between success and authenticity. We shouldn’t have to leave the system altogether to find balance. But I have seen no other option.
As soon as I left the corporate world, my work and my life improved. I write from a creativity that is emotional and vulnerable. I became willing to take risks without fear of being ridiculed. My strategic work comes from listening and experimenting without pressure of having to prove my expertise and validate my ego. I cry at work without shame.