In a self-awareness workshop we held late last year, one of the
participants, a very senior professional services provider, posed
us a poignant question:
How do you keep your 'shape' as you advance through an
organisation and face increasing pressures to 'fit in' (whatever
As we explored this question with the women in the room, what
resonated with many of us was that as you advance in many
organisations there are constant pressures on you to adapt or to
change your behaviour in various ways. Comments such as, 'try
being more/less assertive in client meetings' and 'you need to show
more commitment to the firm' are common examples. The
collective wisdom in the room suggested that 'the powers that be'
probably think they have your best interests at heart. But what is
the personal cost to us as we move away from who we are?
thought about this exchange a lot since that workshop and it
occurred to me that a substantial proportion of the pressure to fit
in is to become, somehow, more masculine in a 'socially acceptable
way'. Let's face it, we have to be at least a little
competitive, assertive/aggressive and know how to hold ourselves to
succeed in the male dominated environments. And there's
nothing wrong with that either - unless, and this is a big 'unless'
for me, we lose our feminine selves along the way. Perhaps that's
what our senior participant was meaning when she said 'holding our
The Boxer versus the Ballerina
Like most psycho-social constructs, to me, masculinity and
femininity lie on a continuum. Some women can be very
masculine and have always been that way, and the same holds true
for some feminine men. But if you, like me, have a son and a
daughter who are pretty much bang on the middle of that continuum,
you see the differences between them emerge very, very early
on. My daughter is feminine, but she also enjoys her
brother's rough games and is very competitive. I ask myself whether
she'll be able to retain her wonderful femininity if she chooses a
professional career, or will she be subtly, or not so subtly,
pushed to lose some of it to become 'tough' and 'someone who can
take the pressure'.
Reflecting on my own personal journey I've realised that perhaps
in male dominated environments we are moulded into more 'masculine'
versions of ourselves. Or, perhaps it's as simple as being rewarded
for more masculine behaviours which in turn results in us being
more likely to display these behaviours. In either scenario
we often lose track of our more 'feminine' side.
This was further brought home to me when I was having a coffee
with one of our staunchest Professionelle supporters. She
works in a very male-dominated environment and we were talking
about how we were both dealing with two very traumatic personal
experiences. We both felt pressure in the professional
setting to put on a brave face, to 'be staunch', and to hold
most of our anguish inside. The thing is, does this then make
it harder for us to let go in personal settings? Once you are in
this mind-set, it does pervade into all areas of your life.
So when do you let go? How do you allow yourself to be kind
Being kind to ourselves
For years, being kind to myself has been a really hard thing to
do. Working in male-dominated environments just meant I
really never did. Being kind to myself was a 'soft'
thing to do, a waste of time, right down the bottom of my
priorities. Working all nighters, well, that's true grit,
that's what real (wo)men are made of. Being kind to
myself? That's for women who just can't hack it and who are
I have mellowed over the years and started doing nice things for
me, things that have softened me. One example is yoga,
which I am very passionate about. But even with yoga, it took me
many, many years before I let up and stopped pushing myself to my
absolute limit in every class. My wonderful teacher, Melodie
Batchelor of Herne Bay Yoga kept telling me to 'back off'
and work with 80% of my ability - it took me a long time to
understand what that meant. I have always given everything
120% of my ability (at the very least) - and I was always rewarded
for it. But even then, being kind to myself was just not a
priority. Yoga, after all is about being fit.
Then I got really, really sick. Having Churg Strauss Vasculitis has nothing to do
with anything. It's pure bad luck - not triggered by stress
or life style. But here I am, in the prime of my life, with a
serious, life threatening illness and having to go through very
traumatic medical treatments. That's when I HAD to be kind to
myself and to my body.
What sickness teaches you
Being kind to myself - being softer, more 'feminine' if you
like, became my new discipline. I backed right off
everything so that my body and mind could process and deal with
what I had to deal with. I also made a commitment to myself
to do at least one nice thing for me, every week, be it a haircut,
a manicure or a make-over. And I committed to not be so
staunch, to ask for help when I needed it, to tell people when I
got tired, and to admit that doing certain things drained me.
It was hard, I am a tough cookie, all my life I have been very
physically strong with high tolerance for work, stress and
pressure. But now I have had to let myself be softer - more
feminine- because I very quickly realised if I tried to ignore what
was happening and keep going in a 'staunch' manner, I would harm my
After six months of fortnightly hospital treatments, I am now
officially in remission. The next phase is strong oral
medications, but the specialist promises me that once we know how I
am reacting to this new regime - hopefully without any
complications - I should feel a thousand times better (his
words!). He is extremely happy with my progress and how I
have handled the treatments with minimal complications and side
effects along the way.
There have been many things that have contributed to how well
I've responded to the treatment, but I feel letting myself be
softer, more feminine, was a big part of it. Being more
feminine meant that I became more in tune with my body and lived
less in my head. I was closely in touch with what was happening
with my body - checking in and identifying when things weren't
going well, ensuring that I was on top of what health I did still
Now, no need to worry, I fully intend to remain an outspoken,
assertive, results-driven professional. But going forward, as
I get better and gain more energy, I am determined to retain my
feminine self and to be kind to myself; it's healthier, feels
right, and is, actually, fun.
Implications for work
I think that being aware of who you are, and making sure you
stay true to yourself is the core of self-awareness. A big
part of it for women is being mindfully feminine. Retaining
your femininity in a way that works for you, is an important part
of your authentic self, something that will enhance your career and
not diminish it. Luckily, the research supports my views.
Sarah is preparing a treat for our Auckland members, 'The Good Girl's Career Guide', an extended
Professionelle networking workshop planned for June 10th at
HSBC. Being Sarah, she has scoured journal articles to come
up with the most up-to-date research to share with you.
One of those studies is a 2011 Stanford study called "Overcoming the Backlash Effect: Self-monitoring
and Women's Promotions ". The study found that women who
were agentic, that is in control of their careers, assertive etc
but who also self-monitored how they come across i.e. had
self-awareness were the most likely to be promoted.
Specifically, they got one and a half times more promotions than
masculine men, or feminine women, and twice as many promotions as
feminine men. But here's the crux of the matter, these women
were three times more likely to be promoted than agentic women with
low self awareness, women who were perceived as too
How do you 'retain' your feminine self?
Make it a priority. That's my first lesson. I also
have my role-models, those 'agentic' women who are very
professionally successful but retained their femininity. I
talk to them and learn from them: they are my trusted
advisors and mentors. I now realise that discussing this
topic is as important as discussing 'serious' work and my
professional career aspirations.
And in the immediate term? I am just trying to book myself
a foot-massage. So if anyone has recommendations in the Ponsonby
area, please send them through!