Out of the hundreds of endless meetings throughout my early career, there is one that will forever remain cemented in my mind.
It was back when I was an assistant for an executive. The purpose of the meeting was to hand off accounts from the top executives to lower level development associates. They were big, desirable accounts, and the associates all had revenue goals to meet, so this meeting would have a significant impact on their success at the organization that year.
There were a handful of other people in the room, but the executive was calling the shots. He worked his way down the list. One by one, he distributed the contacts to associates — who were not in the room.
I remember a particular account on the list, because when the executive named it, someone else in the room piped up, “Sarah has a great relationship with that company already — she should definitely handle it.”
The executive frowned and paused for a second. “We need someone more serious for this partnership,” he said finally. “How about Eric?”
The decision didn’t make sense to me. Eric was already overloaded with clients, and both he and Sarah were equally competent at their jobs. But my role was to listen and record, not question the outcomes. I diligently recorded the name on the account.
As the meeting continued, I began to realize other irregularities. The executive wasn’t assigning many accounts to Sarah at all, and a few other associates were receiving similar treatment. They were all women. Meanwhile, a couple male associates were being handed more accounts than they could possibly handle. The decisions seemed to have little to do with ability and everything to do with who the executive trusted. Who he considered “serious.”
I’m sure everyone else in attendance forgot about that meeting, but it stuck in my mind for months afterward. Like me, Sarah was in her mid-twenties with a young face. And so, the inevitable thought went through my mind.
Do I seem serious enough?
I knew I didn’t want to experience the same treatment that Sarah had in that meeting. So I started making changes to show just how serious I was. I tried to smile less, and I clamped my jaw shut any time I felt a giggle coming on. I stopped putting exclamation points in my emails — periods only. And I stopped using unserious words like lovely and wonderful and cheers. Anything I could do to differentiate myself from the Sarahs of the world.
It wasn’t until much later that I understood what really happened at that meeting. It was sexism. “Unserious” is just another term like “bossy,” used to dismiss a female trait as negative. Sarah was friendly, warm, approachable. People liked her because she was funny and smiled often. Not only did her humor and lightness make her great to work with, but those same qualities made her excellent at her job.
The executive said she was not serious enough because she didn’t sell the way men do. Her approach was softer — more feminine, you could say. She got results, but not in the manner than men in the organization did. Essentially, she was penalized for simply being a woman doing her job.
Looking back, it’s wild that it took me so long to recognize the subtle sexism in the situation. Instead of seeing it for what it was, I did what so many women do when faced with bigotry — I internalized it. I saw my traditionally feminine traits as problems that I had to change. But what I was doing wasn’t self improvement; it was a radical rejection of my authentic self.
Women have been erasing their femininity at work for as long as they’ve been doing men’s jobs. Margaret Thatcher adopted more masculine mannerisms to compete with men in British politics. And infamous tech CEO and scammer Elizabeth Holmes reportedly lowered her voice to be taken more seriously.
Can you blame them? Even with the progress women, non-binary, and trans folks have made over the past century, men still dominate the world. 92.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male, 75.4% of parliamentary seats globally are held by men, and just 11 women currently serve as Head of State in a country. As with most indicators of gender inequality, the numbers are even more bleak for women of color, who represent only 3 of the — yes, 500 — Fortune 500 CEOs. While there aren’t statistics available for Canada’s parliament on the topic of race in government, in our neighbor to the south, we know that just 47 of the 435 members in the US Congress are women of color.
With men still holding the vast majority of decision-making power in society, it’s no wonder the world still considers traditionally masculine qualities to be the characteristics of successful leaders. In boardrooms and committee meetings and job interviews everywhere, women are experiencing the same bias I did. Directly or indirectly, they are being told they’re unserious or bossy or manipulative, conditioning another generation of women and female-identifying folks to understand that they must reject their femininity to get ahead.
I’ve decided not to play that game anymore. I shouldn’t have to become more like a man to be successful, and I don’t want to, for that matter. One day the world will catch up and realize that feminine qualities are just as important as the masculine ones.
In the meantime, I have started smiling again. I’ve added those exclamation marks back into my emails, and I’ve stopped trying to sound like someone else.
I’m proud of my feminine qualities. I’m cheerful. I’m compassionate. I’m vulnerable. I’m emotional. Those elements of my personality make me a better professional and a better person.
I hope that by rejecting the idea that I need to be masculine to get ahead, in some small way I will show other women that it is okay to do the same. Because in 2020, there is just no place for such an outdated idea of what success looks like.