6min readCareer 16 May 2019
Let's take a page or two from Serena Williams' playbook, shall we?
As the only female c-suite executive in a male-dominated industry, I was often asked by other women, in rather hushed tones, “How do I deal with the double standard?!" Invariably the phrase “I feel damned if I do, damned if I don't…" had a starring role in their inquiries.
There's no denying how what's happening in the world of business, politics and even in sports highlight the continuing double standard that exists around what behavior is acceptable for and/or required of a woman versus that of a man. In responding to the women who come to me, it's helpful to draw parallels to what was happening in society to anchor in the learning. So let's reflect on an incident that happened just last year at the US Open Women's Tennis Championship.
You remember. The one in which Serena Williams was penalized several points for arguing with the (male) chair umpire and was eventually penalized points that cost her a game. Serena argued that men have said far worse things than she did without being penalized as much.
Many debated: if Serena were a man standing on the court would there have even been an issue? How pervasive is the double standard in sports, business, and everyday interactions, especially when it comes to how men and women communicate during unpleasant confrontations?
Very pervasive still, unfortunately. It only takes watching a professional football game on Sunday to see it. The male athlete who's in the ref's face over what he perceives to be a bad call while society proudly hollers along with him, commending him for having “passion!"
But when a woman takes a stand like that, somehow she's viewed as having “poor sportsmanship" or considered to behave badly “…for a woman…"
I call it the double bind because so often a woman is damned if you do and damned if you don't. Passionately argue your point? You're labeled as too aggressive or the proverbial bitch. Sink back quietly and say nothing? You're considered weak.
And unfortunately such double standards extend beyond the sports court; they still exist in the boardroom too. I would know. Over the course of my career and as an international C-suite executive and only woman in an all-male team, I've witnessed more than my fair share of this double standard. So have the women I coach.
Two clients are in the thick of this muck right now. Perhaps you can relate? One's been told she's “too much"; the other, that she creates an unwelcoming environment with her assertive style. Like Serena, they've both choked back tears as they describe behavior on a much worse scale by men in their organizations who seemingly can get away with murder.
While we can argue about how such double standards aren't right or fair 'til the cows come home, let's instead focus on the lessons we can take from Serena for how to handle such situations — because they can and will come up. Knowing how to successfully communicate during heated confrontation can make or break your career.
Lesson 1: Serena had a conviction and she spoke up.
Oftentimes women in such situations don't speak up and won't defend themselves because they either don't know what to say or they're overly concerned about what other people will think. When you don't speak up, people will continue being highly argumentative with you, putting you down, making passive aggressive digs, etc., because with your silence comes your permission for them to treat you that way.
It takes courage to use your voice in powerful ways, especially when the stakes are high and something completely out of the blue catches you off guard. The best way to speak up in such moments is to learn how to have a fierce conversation well in advance. The resource I recommend to all my clients is the book called just that: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. The section on handling strong emotions on both sides of the table is gold!
Lesson 2: Serena regained her composure and her graciousness quickly.
Heated debate and disagreements are going to happen. How you handle them in the moment matters, but what you do after the moment oftentimes matters more because that's what people remember. It's about knowing how to say the tough stuff (lesson 1) without remaining in a funk for days on end after, because if you stay angry and bitter folks will run the other way in avoidance.
And avoidance is the corporate plague that'll kill off any chance of respect, influence, promotion or success you've dreamed about.
So how do you regain your composure and grace quickly?
First, breathe! It's an age-old solution because it works!
Second, don't take things personally. Someone else's behavior is usually all about them, not you. To regain your composure and grace it really helps to look at things as removed from the core of who you are. This isn't about being in denial or pretending that something wrong didn't happen. It's about disassociating the other person's venomous actions or words from your self-worth.
Lesson 3. Serena's not going to let that one situation keep her down.
The level of resilience needed to be a professional, driven woman in business today is significant and requires that you:
Are confident in who you are, having an inner strength that allows you to dig deep and stay centered when the world is swirling around you.
Know that business is a marathon, not a sprint—so be mindful of your own pace.
Don't try doing it all alone.
That last bullet point is especially important. Having a mentor who can help you navigate these choppy waters is essential.
And I'm not talking about your mama, your boo or your best friend at work! We love them but they are not in a position to give you objective advice. Your mom just wants to console you, your boo is likely concerned with protecting you, and your girlfriend is there to commiserate with you. None of that is actually going to help propel you forward in what you need to do to confidently handle the double bind at work.
It's vital you have someone objective in your corner, ideally, someone who is at least two pay grades above you, who has been around the block and can really guide you on how to finesse these situations when they come up.
Know that success in handling confrontation at work and in life is like a muscle: it needs time and practice to get stronger. Do not beat yourself up if your words come out a little jumbled at first. With practice and leveraging the tips I've shared here, you will grow in your ability to advocate for yourself and others. And when you do, others take note. You gain more standing and respect. And your own inner-confidence grows and shines a light for others to follow.
From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web
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."
women in business women empowerment women entrepreneurs women supporting women female entrepreneurs female leaders makeup lookism gender bias attractiveness attractiveness bias makeupless working women corporate women beauty standards beauty culture success in the workplace femme fatale business woman