Career Talk For Women: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?

Each month, my business column will offer insight into a career topic specific to women in the workplace. The name of this monthly feature is, Career Talk For Women.

This feature is geared toward any woman who actively strives for higher levels of professional fulfillment, and the men who care about them. It’s no secret that the world needs more women who are shamelessly confident in their ability to serve as role models and change agents. Our region is no exception. This month will focus upon the self-imposed handcuffs that can hold us back from making our mark as a competent leader if we aren’t quick to intervene.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and author, wrote a best-selling book based upon the following premise: women should take more risks and responsibility for their own success. The book, titled “Lean In,” includes an anecdote about a business breakfast for Silicon Valley executives that was once hosted by Sandberg at Facebook’s headquarters. The invited guests – most of whom were men – also included a handful of female executives.

Sandberg reflected upon a defining moment she observed as the hostess of this business meeting. Although every guest was invited to help themselves to the breakfast buffet before taking their seat at the conference table, the women waited until the men prepared their plates before taking their food last. Perhaps more shockingly, none of the women in attendance took a seat at the large conference table, and instead demurred and remained in their seats off to the side of the room. According to Sandberg, this was the moment when she realized, “that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within … a moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior.”

Perhaps this book evoked so much worldwide reaction and media hype because it was the first time a high profile female executive spoke up about the internal barriers that can hold women back from reaching the leadership positions they desire. As women, we have always known, or at least wondered if this is true.

Many of us talk ourselves out of taking a seat at the executive table, or contributing to the discussions taking place in the board room. Many of us allow our male counterparts to speak for us, or to take the lead in solving business problems. When somebody needs to take notes or prepare minutes for a meeting, we often volunteer ourselves for such gender-stereotyped tasks or quietly assume that role when our male counterpart suggests we might be better because, “we have better handwriting.”

With all of the well-documented evidence that women have a more difficult time reaching career success than men do, it is even more important to empower ourselves and support one another through career triumphs and failures. If only this were the case every time. Instead, the unfortunate reality is that we all too often get in our own way from being taken seriously as a confident leader who can serve as a role model for other women and men in business.

How do we get in our own way? Where do I begin? We are often the first to criticize and harshly judge one another – and especially ourselves – with an unforgiving eye for unreachable perfection. We tend to minimize our own needs in an effort to put others first. We get into the habit of second guessing what our gut tells us, and hold back from sharing our ideas or saying what is on our mind. When we do speak up or contribute during a meeting, we often begin our sentences with common phrases such as, “excuse me please”; “can I say something?”; “I sort of think that …”, or “I’m sorry to interrupt.” We are apologetic in our delivery, and tentative in our conversational tone. Ironically, those of us who are confident and straightforward in our approach are sometimes subjected to being called names by our female peers.

Perhaps the most powerful approach to overcoming these inner hurdles is a universal sisterhood of support, encouragement, and role-modeling. Once we begin to truly see ourselves as strong, exceptional and worthy leadership contenders, so too will others. As Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Elizabeth P. Cipolla is a regional director and senior consultant with JL Nick and Associates Inc. She is a business communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for nearly 15 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, non-profit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at ecipolla@jlnick.com or visit JL Nick and Associates’ website at www.jlnick.com.