July is the month we celebrate freedom in America. In 1776, we declared our independence from Great Britain. It was a small group of men that wrote the Declaration of Independence from which our boldness came.
If you ask around about what defines freedom, you’d likely get as many definitions as the number of people you ask. Maybe that is the beauty of it? I am not really qualified to speak as a historical or political science scholar, so I’ll stick to what I know – women, leaders and the business world.
The world of business is a domain where it can often feel like we have limited freedom, particularly as women. There is a code (often unwritten), a way of being professional, a way to get things done, and a prescribed way we view what defines good leadership. And here is the not so new news – it was all designed by the guys as well. What does that mean for women in business? Certainly there are many factors that contribute to any woman’s experience on the job and as a leader, but over time as a leadership coach, I have noticed a few themes. Women often suffer from misalignment at work. The misalignments come from many places, but they are often rooted in our social conditioning as women. For example, women may be more hesitant to negotiate or self-promote as they have been reminded again and again, we don’t brag or toot our own horn, just do a great job and you will be rewarded. Trouble is, the biz world is all about effective self-promotion and vying for the top spot by declaring your worth, greatness, and ability to get the job done. Boys learn how to do this and are much less admonished for “bragging,” It’s called confidence and leading.
For women, as they enter the workplace, they may not have negotiated for their salary, so start immediately being paid (and valued) less. They put their nose to the grindstone, work hard, and wait for others to notice, praise, and promote them. They wonder why it takes so long. They notice that the boys have no trouble tooting their own horn, and it makes them a bit uncomfortable.
The women work harder to get ahead, forgo socializing with peers, and often experience a sense of isolation. In comparison, the guys have formed a network that supports each other in and out of work. They attend happy hours and sporting events together, or go golfing – thereby building informal relationships, which create comfort and confidence with people both in and out of work settings. Women often are excluded from these informal gatherings.
Over time, this subtle lack of acknowledgement and promotion begins to degrade a woman’s confidence in her skills and abilities, and she starts to question her value in the workplace. It is a catch 22, because if she participates like a man, she is seemingly over aggressive in her opinion of herself (conditioning); yet if she does not, she does not get the plum assignments or the promotion that often follows the plum assignments.
One of the many things I coach women on is to understand the rules of the game in the business landscape. First though, we must examine our own conditioning and lens on the world. How is it aligned and/or different from that of the “ruling class” at work? How does it impair your freedom? I believe that social conditioning is like the water you swim in. If you’ve always swum in the same water, you don’t really pay attention to the water. If you join a new pond, you notice all the differences in the water, but often assume that the new pond operates like the old one. Women are in a new pond when they join the world of business. And the rules of the pond are different. Conditioning (the old water) gets in your way of seeing that and, therefore, impedes your ability to readily adapt to your new pond.
To be truly free as a woman in the workplace, you need to understand the rules of the game, choose how you play the game, and understand how you are conditioned differently than men. This will sharpen your awareness and increase your likelihood of optimal success in whatever endeavor you choose.