06 May 2011

Balancing the Yin and Yang

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

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 that means)?

Fitting in

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?

Yin Yang.jpgI have 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 shape'?

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 to yourself?

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 soft!

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 health.

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 have.

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 'masculine'.

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!

Comments (5)

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  • Tuesday, 17 May 2011, 11:03a.m. by noeline munro

    “Very good honest story and a timely reminder, Noeline”

  • Wednesday, 18 May 2011, 08:26a.m. by Julie Wilson

    “I just loved this article. I am moved my the honesty and practicality of it. I want to be the best business person I can be but I also want to be fully my, fully female, whole, happy. Thanks for the inspiration and advice! ”

  • Saturday, 04 June 2011, 01:15p.m. by Andrea

    “Great article Galia. I've always worked in very male dominated environments and there is pressure to fit in. I realised that I had moved off track when I opened my wardrobe to a lot of dark suits and I love colour! A quick trip to a personal shopper helped me reconnect who I was with how I appeared at work.

    Very very pleased to hear that you are now in remission :-)”

  • Tuesday, 24 January 2012, 03:05p.m. by Rachel

    “I agree with your view. It relates to holding onto your values too. Being a female, and being feminine is part of who women are, and acting or dressing in denial of that cannot help people feel that they are being true to themselves.”

  • Thursday, 26 January 2012, 10:24p.m. by Nicola

    “Galia, it's fantastic news about your remission. Wonderful!

    Your article above shows half the story very well. But there's another side: women are very good at policing expected female behaviours, cutting down anyone who displays, say, more ambition than is stereotypically allowed. We need to be free to ignore the traits we've been socialised into, and to select those behaviours that feel true to us - from right across the spectrum, male habits included.”

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