Recently, I was having lunch with a couple of guys I used to work with when one of them, Steve, started to chuckle under his breath and squirm a bit in his seat. “I don’t know if I should tell you this or not, but I used to think you were a man.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Well, I had always heard about Sandi Coryell running the Entertainment office with its big accounts and an iron fist. Maybe I’m just a chauvinist but I just assumed it was Mr. Sandy Coryell, some gruff, middle aged man.” he said.
“yeah, that assumption would put you firmly in the chauvinist bucket.” I said.
“There’s more,” he laughed. “Then, when I always saw you around Sandi Coryell’s office, you know with your blonde hair, flared jeans, and long coats, I just assumed you were Mr. Coryell’s secretary.”
“nice,” I snarked back at him.
I leaned in, pushing against the table, to hear more. Steve admitted that he had just assumed that someone who had reached that position in the agency and successfully run such a rough piece of business had to be a man. In any event, it couldn’t have been a woman who also cared about fashion and being well groomed. Oh, the horror!
Welcome to the career of many a woman in business. The decision to pick whether to be a pseudo male or a full fledged woman is one that female executives often have to make at some point or another -with consequences no matter what the choice.
I learned this within months of being hired right out of college as an assistant. A female co-worker had pulled me into a hallway, stood nose to nose with me, and whispered as if we were in some secret conspiracy “you will have to choose. Do you want to be the target of all the guys who will want to yank your chain or do you want to become one of them?”
Hell, who would choose the victim role. I chose to be one of the “boys” and I learned enough about sports and off color jokes to keep up with their conversations for years. I also developed a really thick hide and a colorful vocabulary. I wore “proper” suits and cut my hair.
I was miserable. Keeping up this charade every day was bull.
Slowly, I started to revert to who I really was. I grew out my hair, started wearing the latest trends from cowhide skirts to amazing beaded coats that would make even Joseph jealous. And, yes, by the new millenium I was rocking flared jeans on a regular basis.
Right about that time, I was promoted to President. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I stopped worrying about being one of the boys and just was who I was.
I know I wasn’t unique in that experience. Recently, I heard a roundtable discussion on the daytime program “The Talk” about Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who chose to go to a meeting wearing only minimal make-up. A group of women were arguing about whether it was a woman’s responsibility to groom a certain way for professional meetings. Many experts would say yes.
Why? Because for some reason, it throws people off kilter when we aren’t what they expect in a particular role. I learned that keeping people a little off kilter could be a good thing. It gives you the element of surprise. Right, Steve?
Here’s what I know about simultaneously being female and a corporate executive:
-Being one of the guys when you’re a woman is a full time job and it’s exhausting. Spend that energy on something important
-Pick a career where your true brand matches the profession- I was in entertainment advertising so I could wear flared jeans and beaded coats and still be professional. You don’t have to be one of the guys to be professional but you do have to be professional
-Know your stuff inside and out. You don’t get to deviate from normal unless you first have the responsibilities of the job wired
-Understand that people will make assumptions about you. Don’t sweat it, have fun with it!