We hear the word authenticity a lot these days. We’re told that to be our best, we must be our authentic self. Based on recent revelations and interactions, I have decided that this is much easier said than done, especially for a woman.
We are all familiar with the stereotypes about women and how we are portrayed in the media. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how we should act and images of what we should look like. Some of us know better than to buy into this, while for others, it is a constant struggle. Many of you have read the recent article “How to Talk to Little Girls” by Lisa Bloom (Huffington Post, June 22, 2011: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html). While the article focuses on the types of conversations we have with children, I think there is a lot we can take from it to apply to our adult lives. Think about the first thing you say to a female friend when you see her. Do you compliment her on her outfit, maybe a new pair of shoes or a handbag? Do you tell her that you think she has lost some weight and looks great? We have all said these types of things to each other, and like Bloom says in her article, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to compliment each other in this way. It just should never be the only focus. We need to ensure that we are also telling our female companions that we are proud of her academic or professional accomplishments. While it is nice to hear that our new hairdo looks nice, it is even better to receive praise for a job well done on a tough project we have successfully completed. I think this blog is a phenomenal community of female minds, and we are pretty good at celebrating that with each other. But, it cannot stop there. We need to be champions of change and spread the word of our accomplishments. We also need to stay true to our authentic selves, even though it is not always easy.
I remember having a conversation with my parents when I was in high school, after they had returned from a parent-teacher interview night. I had asked the usual questions (what the teachers said about me) and was met with the usual answers (that I was a pleasure to teach and teachers enjoyed having me as a student in their class). One comment, however, struck my parents as a little odd. My grade eleven English teacher had told my parents that she thought I could be “a little arrogant” in the class. And here I was thinking that I was just confident with the course material. My dad’s response was “that’s my girl” (I can only assume that he took “arrogant” to also mean confident) while my mum was left puzzled, as I had never been called arrogant before, nor had she witnessed that behaviour in me growing up. Apparently to this teacher, arrogance (read: confidence) is not a desired quality in a female student. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the parent-teacher interview with the parents of my male counterpart, to see if his “arrogance” was praised as being an engaged student and a good contributor to class material, or if his “arrogance” was as displeasing as mine was. Something tells me it would not have been the latter. This story stands out to me because it has followed me. As a self-proclaimed strong, independent woman, who lists “confidence” as one of her strongest qualities, having that quality undermined challenges my desire to be truly authentic. We all know what a confident woman is often considered and that it is certainly not a fair assessment.
I did not fully understand until this summer, that because of my gender, I was at a disadvantage. I have often wondered why many human resources departments have a blurb on their website along the lines of “we welcome applications from any qualified persons, including Aboriginal persons, immigrants, members of sexual minority groups, persons with disabilities, racial/visible minorities and women.” It is 2011. You would think that none of these people would need to be singled out as a welcome applicant group, but that is a whole other blog post. If “equal opportunity” exists, then should I need to self-identify as a woman on a job application to “get a leg up” on the (male) competition? Based on my experience though, even that does not matter.
When you are looking to make a move up the professional ladder, the competition is more intense than ever before. There are so few opportunities and so many applicants, that you really have to stand out just to land an interview. Time after time, I’ve seen mid-level and senior positions go to men. Sure, he could very well be the best candidate for the job, but when it happens numerous times, it does make you wonder. In an interview setting, I found that I am constantly battling the “be confident but not too confident” thought for fear of coming across a certain way (remember what confident women are often classed as). When I have been my authentic self in interviews, I have later received feedback that I come across as “too ambitious” and “over-qualified.” Much like my grade eleven self, I thought these were good things!
Being authentic should come natural to us (emphasis on the should). However, with all of the messages in the media, solidified by the actions of those around us, being authentic is a challenge. At what point does a woman abandon her authentic self for a more socially accepted self? Do you compromise your integrity just to land the dream job, or get ahead? The truth of the matter is we should never have to. It is a constant struggle though and unfortunately, we know that many times people are not hired based on their merits.
When you come face to face with these realities, it can be hard to resolve whether you should always be your authentic self, or concede to expectations. I stand by the sayings “I am who I am” and “take me or leave me.” It is unfortunate that so many are choosing to “leave me” because I’m just too darned ambitious.