Here’s a few of the sentences that have appeared in some of my recent emails and text messages:
- “Sorry to bother you…”
- “Of course! I’d be happy to help…”
- “Just checking to see…”
- “Whenever you have a moment, I’d appreciate if you could…”
- “I know you’re really busy…”
As a kid, I was assertive, forthright. I was also quiet and thoughtful, with my nose stuck in a book most of the time. But those identities didn’t feel incompatible. I was never afraid to ask for something. I knew what I wanted and I communicated that, and I never felt like I wasn’t supposed to want things. To need things.
That’s not always true today. While I know that I’m a self-assured and decisive woman, I still find myself adapting to the way the world wants me to communicate. Whether that happens to be with acquaintances, colleagues, or the clerk at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon I find myself performing as the compliant, unassuming, apologetic woman I’m “supposed to be.”
It’s not uncommon I find myself performing as the compliant, unassuming, apologetic woman I’m “supposed to be.”
The world wants me to communicate like a “woman”
The world has told me for so long to be who they expect me to be. To sit down and shut up. To act like a goddam woman. And women are supposed to be quiet, kind, nurturing, passive.
It’s hard not to internalize that message. Even though I fight it every day, there is some part of me that has internalized it. That does shut up. That apologizes when I ask for something. That becomes anxious when I’ve been too dominant. And puts others first, even when it costs me my health.
I’ve had bosses tell me that I’m arrogant when I display too much confidence in my opinions, even when those opinions were thoroughly researched. I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve been spoken over more times than I could count. I’ve had male friends laugh uncomfortably when I say things that are too decisive. I’ve had ideas rejected then promptly hailed as excellent when spoken by male colleagues. I’ve been treated like the dumb blond, been mistaken for the Assistant instead of the Director, and been in meetings where my male direct report is shown more respect than I am. I’ve had people come in for meetings and jokingly offer me a tip. I’ve had men ask me how old I am when I tell them my position, or incite that I’m “just a child.”
I’ve had male friends laugh uncomfortably when I say things that are too decisive. I’ve had ideas rejected then promptly hailed as excellent when spoken by male colleagues.
I work really, really hard, and I do a lot of research, and I come incredibly prepared to every meeting I have. I spent my 20s pulling 60–80 hour weeks, working multiple jobs, getting a graduate degree, spending my weekends doing online courses, all to get to where I am. Yet it still feels like I’m fighting to be seen as more than just an object, an assistant, a woman.
We’re being asked to speak up with our voices on mute
I am an assertive, confident woman. I feel comfortable giving my recommendation because I’ve done the research to back it up. But I’m also nurturing, warm, and friendly —traits that are seen as incompatible.
I don’t want to become resentful of this softer, traditionally feminine part of my identity because the world wants me to be only that way. I don’t want to feel bitter when the people around me exchange knowing glances when I think a baby is adorable. I don’t want to become resentful when I offer people help because it feels like I’m supposed to.
We’re at this time when the world is telling us they want us to speak up, to rise up, to be as successful as men. Where we champion equal representation on corporate boards, in government, and on leadership teams. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but the mixed messages I’ve received from the world has made it so fucking confusing to just be who I am. Am I supposed to be a passive, compliant, soft-spoken woman? Or do you want me to speak my mind, share my thoughts, and rise to the top? If I’m both, will you assume I’m lying? Will you think there’s something wrong with me?
Am I supposed to be a passive, compliant, soft-spoken woman? Or do you want me to speak my mind, share my thoughts, and rise to the top?
I know that stereotypes and judgments are evolutionary holdovers. But it’s a trap. It shouldn’t be exhausting to be who we are. Strength and dominance and kindness and compassion can all exist at once within a person. And they should. There is no either/or.