When we think of women at work and the roles they play, a lot has to do with how we are raised and what we learn as young women. It’s always black and white for women—you are either the “good girl” or the “bad girl”. There are subtle signs all around when you are growing up that ask you to be a “good girl”. What does it really mean?
On a personal level, it means following the rules, getting dressed well, not questioning anything, getting the right degrees, getting married, having children, not laughing too loud, and so on and so forth. On the professional side, you are expected to be a consensus builder, team player, not fight or raise your voice and always be the one who knows everything.
What is “assertive” in a man is “argumentative” for a woman; what is “strong” in a man is “troublesome” for women, and the list goes on. Every aspect of being raised, be it the toys that are designed or books that are written or qualities that are taught—have a significant gender bias. Boys are told to toughen up while girls are told not to be tomboys. No matter which continent you are raised on, a woman is more likely to worry about pleasing everyone, feel more awkward to ask for what she wants, more prone to be quiet in a meeting, and most often the first one to jump up without even being asked if anyone needs a cup of tea in the room. These behaviours don’t surface overnight; they are carefully cultivated without a conscious curriculum. My corporate upbringing was no different and I am thankful for the intrusions that allowed me to learn valuable lessons.
I worked for a major tech company in the U.S. for almost 12 years. At that time, I learnt a lot about myself and I am thankful for my coaches who held a mirror to my behaviour and gave very specific inputs that helped me change my behaviour. Here are the three important lessons that I learnt.
The first was about the importance of talking about your accomplishments and understanding your worth. In the first year of my being there, I was told of the evaluation process. I was expected to have monthly and quarterly meetings with my boss to list my accomplishments for that period and I was also expected to write an annual evaluation of my accomplishments and areas for improvement. The reason that they were insistent that we write these reports on a weekly basis was that it would become easy to roll up your work for the quarterly meetings and then for the annual evaluation. You work on many things on a day-to-day basis and it’s easy to forget that one problem you solved, or that one presentation that you made that got all the compliments when you are trying to remember it at the end of the year. I felt very awkward to write my accomplishments. I always felt that my boss would know what we each have done and will take care of my progress. So, I never wrote those weekly reports or even the annual report. I honestly believed that it was the job of my boss to take care of me like a parent would take care of a child. I felt very awkward to write “I did this, and I did that” as it felt too self-serving.
At the end of the year, when the evaluations were done, I did not make it to the top group. I was disheartened and that’s when one of my colleagues showed me how he wrote his report. Mine was barely one page long, summarising what I did in a few bullet points vs his report crisply summarising month by month accomplishments. I forgot at least a dozen major contributions that I made that I remembered only when I read his report. We were part of the same team, but he clearly articulated the details and I did not even mention most of my accomplishments. He went prepared for the meeting to say: I am at this grade, here are the accomplishments where I demonstrated my ability to be promoted to the next grade and this is why I expect x% raise. Sometimes the boss may agree and other times not but being clear about your contribution was the essential first step. That taught me that keeping track of your actions and translating them into the benefit they created for the organisation is an essential ingredient of personal development. If you do not know your value, who else will? Archiving your accomplishments regularly is extremely important as we all forget the details over time.
The second major learning was about accepting compliments. After the first three years, I got into managerial roles as well as leading projects that required working with teams from across the company. Our teams worked on unique, out of the box projects and it took a special skill to get along with truly diverse people and get them all to come to one agreement. Whenever we had a great success and a colleague paid a compliment saying, “You did a great job with the team”, I would always respond by saying something like “Oh, no! it was not me. The credit should go to my team. It was Sam who really came up with the idea or that it was Sally who did great graphics” and so on. I felt that I was being a great leader by not taking the compliment and passing on the credit to my team members.
One day my boss took me aside and said that I was making it very difficult for her to recommend me for a promotion because whenever she argued about my accomplishment, someone else would say, “But Lakshmi told us that it was not her and that it was Sam and Sally who did the work. So, the promotion should really go to Sam or Sally”. Finally, my boss sat me down for a one on one and taught me the most valuable lesson: “When someone pays you a compliment, please learn to say ‘thank you’ and shut up. Do not be a martyr and pass on the credit to someone else”.
It was such a rude awakening. I thought that by passing on the credit, I would be seen as a true leader and be rewarded for it and never imagined that it would be holding me back. So, to this day, when someone walks up to me and pays a compliment, I say “thank you” and shut up. I learnt to be gracious and yet stand firmly in my accomplishments.
Finally, I learnt the importance of raising your hand and asking a question. I am not an engineer and I went to a technology company. Initially, I would be in many meetings where I would not understand much. I used to really hesitate to ask what I consider “dumb” questions.
We would have some high-flying consultant or a subject expert address us and have such a jargon-filled presentation that I would be lost in the first 15 minutes. If I did not ask anything at all, I could not make informed decisions based on that presentation. I would decide to keep quiet and ask one of the colleagues later to explain the content to me. Then, I would feel shy to ask my colleague and try to read up on it myself and that did not help much either.
After a few weeks, I became brave and raised my hand once to ask what they meant by certain definitions and as soon as I asked, I heard a sigh of relief from the room because it turned out no one else understood what was being spoken either but no one wanted to admit their ignorance. It was a seminal moment for me when I realised that if I did not understand, it was likely that there were many like me in that room. More importantly, it taught me that understanding the content of the conversation was what I owed to myself and I need not care what others thought of my ignorance.
By not asking, I was sure to stay ignorant. If I asked, at least I would benefit from it. From then on, I do not care how dumb I may sound but I always put my hand up when I don’t understand something or when I have a burning question or when I want clarification or for whatever other reason. I learnt that putting up your hand to raise a question is a great privilege and that it should be utilised fully.
In each of the instances, I was acting out of what I thought was “being nice” or “being a good girl” and did not want to be seen as a brag or an attention seeker or the dumb one. I put so much pressure on myself to fit a false image of an ideal professional. Be it personal or professional, there is no need to live up to some perfect image. I would like for women to learn to put themselves first and trust their instincts and worry less about what others might think of them. I would be elated if the two words “good girl” would be struck off from the lexicon of life in the pursuit of being yourself, whatever that may be: strong, silent, dominating, demure, loud, quiet, brash, shy, or any other adjective. It is time women brought their own style of management to the business world instead of measuring up to some imaginary stoic image. Being “self-aware” is very different from being “selfish” and it is important to know the difference and exercise the option.
Views are personal. The author is founder, INK, a platform for cutting-edge ideas and inspiring stories.