Eighty percent of my coaching practice is comprised of women leaders and trailblazers. We face a unique set of challenges and expectations imposed upon us via social media, our families, our cultures, and our religions.
We continue to break those molds, rewrite the rules, redefine ourselves, achieve great things, and change our worlds. But, there is one key place I still see women getting stuck. It's on the internal limitations we impose upon ourselves. These are far more discreet. Thus, harder to identify. I want to introduce you to the top three ways I see women holding themselves back at work. Regardless if you're an entrepreneur, CEO, or employee, understanding the ways you hold yourself back and getting rid of those roadblocks will not only catapult you to new heights in your career—it can inspire other women to follow.
1. Erase The Brilliance Margin
I write a lot about The Brilliance Margin, which is a self-perceived measure of difference between your brilliance and capabilities to that of someone else. We often think there's a huge margin between our own abilities, knowledge, and talents as compared to:
- Our parents
- Our bosses
- Our colleagues
- Our partners
- Our friends
At some point, we come to the realization that the people we look up to and the ones we compare ourselves with don't have the answers. We do. Our brilliance exists in the unique sets of skills, capabilities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes that are intrinsically ours. We need to start owning our stories instead of constantly comparing our journeys of success and failure to someone else. When we do that, we learn that:
- Our parents are fallible humans who have been “faking it until they make it" through the unknowns for decades.
- Our bosses aren't really that much smarter than us, and yet they hired us to complement their shortcomings.
- Our partners want what's best for us but may not really know what that is (because only we do).
- Our friends don't have it all figured out because if we really listen, they're telling us so (and thank goodness, because who else would we commiserate with)?
- Celebrities either inherit or stumble into their celebritydom by chance. If you don't think there are hundreds or more Angelina Jolie's and Denzel Washingtons out there waiting to be discovered, think again!
If you've created a Brilliance Margin (and chances are you have), many things can happen.
- You don't speak up because you think someone probably has a better idea than you do.
- You don't speak up because you are afraid the person will think you're an idiot.
- You don't act on your vision or idea until you can run it by them.
- You don't create your own vision because you play the role of activating their vision or ideas.
- You don't advocate on your own behalf because you don't deserve “it" yet (it = promotion, money, love, acknowledgment).
Notice that the result of a Brilliance Margin is inaction. Don't speak. Don't act. Don't create. Don't own your greatness.
Don't believe that nonsense.
If you do want to harness and leverage your own power, there are just three rules to follow:
- Be the master of your internal dialogue. How do you speak to yourself? What stories do you tell yourself about your own power or potential?
- Trust that by knowing and being yourself, you will “show up" well in the world (which encompasses how you talk, the actions you take, and how they make you feel).
- Know that not all people are your people, so it's okay if not everyone is a member of your fan club. Remember that people who are not yet awakened to their own power will sometimes find yours threatening.
Lastly, examine your key relationships: parents, boss, partner, friends. Who do you look to for approval and permission? How would it feel to give yourself permission to speak up or take action? Where in your life have you already narrowed a Brilliance Margin? What strengths and lessons can you carry from that experience into another that needs attention?
If you're ready to start narrowing a Brilliance Margin in your life, action is key, because action is the only remedy for fear.
2. Soothe the Imposter Syndrome.
The Imposter Syndrome is one of the most common disguises fear wears (and very common among high-achieving women). Introduced in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a paper entitled, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, it's a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
The best way to soothe your Imposter Syndrome is to find a safe place to talk about it. You'll be astounded how many women have this in common. Talking about it deflates its power over you. Replace your imposter thoughts with positive affirmations and start rewiring your brain, yes, own who you are in your journey, right now. You're not an imposter. You're growing, evolving, and becoming a better version of yourself. Remember that your opinion is the real one that matters.
3. Recruit your cheering section.
Who are your biggest supporters? Where are there gaps in your cheering section? Home? Career? Health? Spiritual life? Family?
Feeling supported by the right people is mandatory in business. If you only rely on your digital audience, you will feel sorely disappointed when you share news and don't get a million likes. Creating an authentic cheering section sets the stage for you to be yourself.
Here are some of the reasons women don't ask for support:
- Fear of rejection/being told “no"
- We don't want to be a burden
- Fear of judgment
One of the greatest gifts from years of working inside of organizations are the beautiful friendships and professional relationships that resulted. When I started my own business, a former colleague and friend were kind enough to review all of my original sales presentations, program ideas, proposals, and pricing.
I then hired an executive coach to support me, who also held me accountable for the internal work of creating a business while I created the parts of the business the world could see. Working through your fears and having a partner to remind you of your gifts, your “why," and generally hold space for you to work through your internal and external challenges is nothing short of a game changer.
While so many people make promises to buy your services or share their contacts, here's the truth: only a fraction of them will actually show up for you. Here's another truth: the ones who do will support you in ways you cannot even imagine. Support is about quality, not volume.
Hire support where you need to. Otherwise, from your place of power, formally invite key people to your support team: colleagues, mentors, spouses, and partners. Be specific about the kind of support you need and ask if they are willing to sign up. It is heartwarming to watch the women I coach make these requests of the people in their lives because, let me tell you, they will say yes and sign up for you in droves! You'll wish you had done it sooner.
Wherever you are in your professional life, stop waiting for permission to be great or do great things. There's no right time. No perfect boss. No “dream" work scenario where you feel on top of your game five days per week.
Be honest with yourself, remove the barriers, and get to work.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."