The art of being female-and feminine-at work

I’ll never be a #GirlBoss.

That was the thought that ran through my head after I burst into tears during a particularly emotionally charged meeting. I was 23 and it was my first real job. Of course, that realization also made me cry.

I am phenomenally lucky to be born into a generation of women who rarely see overt sexism in the workplace and who take for granted our ability to become leaders. Being female in the workplace has never held me back. In some ways it’s been an advantage. There have been times where I’ve been brought on to projects as a strategist and trusted with work far beyond my pay grade simply because I have insight into the elusive “millennial female demographic.”

Of course, sexism hasn’t disappeared. It’s just changed. Hidden in complex company politics is a systematic and undeniable prejudice toward femininity. Or, I should clarify, qualities that are normally associated with femininity, like being “emotional.” (Emotions certainly aren’t exclusive to women, but the word “emotional” is often used to describe women who raise their voices, speak passionately, cry or even tear up in the workplace. And it’s generally not used as a compliment.)

A recent study by the Stanford School of Business defined this problem as a “double bind” or an unwritten rule that women who act in feminine ways, who are seen as cute or flirty, are unlikely to be regarded as leaders. Women who operate like men, who are assertive and confident, are often judged as being “bitchy” and disliked. The research found that women who could be assertive in the right situations—without overdoing it (assertive, but not too much!)—received promotions and experienced career success.

I worked for years to redefine my 9-to-5 personality. I learned when and how to turn on my creativity and when to hold back. I learned when to stifle any waves of emotion or vulnerability and when to turn on a bolder, more masculine personality. In meetings, I learned to speak up and aggressively fight for my projects in order to have a voice in the masculinity-dominated conversation.

Other young women climbing the ladder learned the same tricks I did. We began to understand when to appear confident but not aggressive, when to be passive and chatty without looking lazy or superficial. Reading the faces and reactions of the men around us became our greatest tool for success. My greatest achievement. It also became emotionally exhausting.

Mapping my career became a part-time obsession. Trying to imagine a path from young creative to thriving feminine leader while staying true to myself and creating work I was proud of seemed an impossibility.

I understand now how a middle-aged woman could become stuck in the trap of middle management simply by refusing to play the game. Perhaps she chose to cultivate relationships and praise her team rather than put her accomplishments on parade.  Perhaps she left the office at a reasonable hour to pick up her kids from school or take her aging parents to a doctor’s appointment, while her colleagues waited until the boss closed his door to go get drinks with the other guys.  

In moments of optimism I’ve looked to a small group of women (and men) who’ve done what they needed to in order to rise to leadership. I’m still inspired by those who’ve led using the same feminine qualities that I believe make organizations thrive. I’ve seen companies built on powerful relationships, decisions made by asking questions and listening, teams that share information and credit equally.  I knew becoming a strong feminine leader was possible.

Still, the path to leadership felt increasingly defeating. The qualities that define a great feminine leader can be the very things that make it almost impossible to climb the ladder of success.

I’ve asked women I respect how I could become a strong leader without compromising my uniquely feminine and emotional self. They told me to get out. To start my own business. To freelance and do contract work where I could manage my own work style.

Sexism has changed. It is no longer the sexism of the 20th century, where handsy bosses and being called “babe” were to be expected. But the reality is, being an empowered feminine worker in a hierarchical, ego-driven corporate office is still not the norm.

The system is broken when we cannot break the double bind of being feminine at work. We shouldn’t have to choose between success and authenticity. We shouldn’t have to leave the system altogether to find balance. But I have seen no other option.

As soon as I left the corporate world, my work and my life improved. I write from a creativity that is emotional and vulnerable. I became willing to take risks without the fear of being ridiculed. My strategic work comes from listening and experimenting without the pressure of having to prove my expertise and validate my ego. And I cry at work without shame.

Emily Straubel is a writer and ceramic artist living in Portland. Writing about design and technology by day, and the unpredictable world of love and dating by night, her work is driven by curiosity and FOMO.

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