So often professional women are put in a box.
It’s a box constructed of contradictions. In short, we are expected to be everything and want nothing.
We are expected to wear makeup that alters our natural appearance, but only if the 25 products and 45 minutes of effort result in a “natural look.” We are encouraged to wear masculine clothing, like a suit, in professional situations but we can’t appear too manly. So we’re told to wear a skirt, a ruffle, or a pop of pink. We are told to speak up and make our voices heard, to contribute to conversations and to fight for our beliefs. All too often, only muted messages are received, and even then only if they are in agreeance with majority opinion… bonus points if wecan contrive the message to make a man feel like it was his idea. If we literally “speak up” we are labeled as angry, screechy, pushy or aggressive. We are told to go after leadership
positions only to have our communities and peers turn on us when we do.
A Harvard study looked at how the public viewed male and female politicians. It found that when males are seeking power, the public perceives them as tougher, more assertive and more competent than women. Alternatively, when women were in power-seeking roles, their peers described them as being unsupportive and uncaring. What’s more is that when the female politicians were described as power-seeking, people felt a sense of outrage, anger and disgust towards them. Here’s the real kicker in all of this...it didn’t matter whether the respondents were male or female. So not only are males not supporting women, we aren’t even supporting each other. It makes the already startling “confidence gap” between men and women even worse. Unfortunately though, it makes sense. If you can’t even count on other women for support, who can you count on?
But why is it that we need the assurance of others in the first place, and at what point in our lives do we start looking for that validation? As it turns out, this confidence gap starts early. The study: Age and Gender Differences in Self Esteem, published in the American Psychological Association’s journal, says during adolescence, women consistently reported having lower self esteem than men. It also reports that this pattern continues into adulthood before it starts to level out as we reach our golden years. Basically, we don’t report having as much self esteem as men until we’re almost dead, if at all.
What’s even more confusing is that women have the accolades that should make them more confident than men. According to the Center for American Progress, women earn 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees, and represent 59 percent of the college-educated entry-level workforce. However, at some point in their professional careers, women, in some way or another, get taken out of the mix. Only 14.6 percent of executive officers are women, we only make up 8.1 percent of top earners and just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.
While the numbers may suggest a dim future and uphill climb through the professional world for women, there are some things you can do individually and that we can do together to move the needle.
1. Don’t be afraid to brag.
When’s the last time you bragged about your accomplishments? Or, when was the last time you
didn’t downplay your accomplishments? With reported lower self-esteem, a public that has a
moral opposition to power-seeking women, and a warped ladder to the top of the business-
world, it’s no wonder women keep their professional accomplishments on the down-low.
However, that tactic hurts us in the long run. Many women I talk with are uncomfortable
boasting about their accomplishments, but it is necessary to be objectively honest about what
we’ve achieved. If we aren’t, we’re less likely to land big jobs that’ll put us on the path to
2. Give what you want to get.
Not feeling supported? Remember that we tend to get back whatever it is we give. We already
know that women have a lower sense of self esteem, are less likely to talk openly about their
accomplishments, and are conditioned by peer pressure to not seek power. So, we all need
cheerleaders. Be that person for someone else first, and you’d be amazed to see how the
support circles back to you. Don’t be shy about supporting your female friends. When one of
your gal pals has a major (or minor) accomplishment, post about in on facebook, tweet it, use it
as leverage to submit her name for an award, try to win her public recognition. The more
recognition women get for their hard work and earned accomplishments, the more society will
be forced to acknowledge and get comfortable with women shooting for the top.
3. Fake it till you make it.
Have you ever heard of the imposter syndrome? It’s a phenomenon that happens when high-
achieving individuals aren’t able to recognize their own accomplishments and instead view
themselves as “frauds”. Have you ever felt this way, like someday you’ll be “found out?” This
is surprisingly common among high-achieving women. If this keeps you from going after big
goals or making needed transitions, sometimes you just need to pretend like you know exactly
what you’re doing and go for it. I’ve seen women use this tactic to help them break the cycle of
self-doubt and fear that can come along with feeling insecure about accomplishments and
These tips alone may not bring workplace inequality, along with its glass ceiling, crashing down.
But, they all rally around women uniting together. It’s true what they say about supporting each
other- when one of us “wins”, we all do in a way. As a competitive person, that wasn’t always
an easy concept for me. For most of my life, I’ve viewed success and failure as a pretty cut and
dry picture….you either succeed or you do not. It took awhile for me to come around to the idea
that there’s a lot of room at the top. I really understood it when a mentor of mine explained it to
me like this; “dimming someone else’s light doesn’t make yours brighter.” There is so much
wisdom packed into that little phrase. As most of us probably do….I wish I saw that sooner.
If supporting yourself and your peers doesn’t motivate you to loudly cheer on women, think
instead about the example we’re setting for the next generation of young women. We have to
ask ourselves, what are we teaching them? Are we teaching them to encourage their female
friends, or put them down? Are we teaching them to go after leadership positions? Are we
calling on them when their hands are raised? Are we disproportionately interrupting them when
they speak? Are we teaching them that their voice carries value and that their dreams can turn
Young women pick up on our cues as they navigate a world of nastiness and anonymity that
stem from the darkest corners of the internet. They target each other socially and emotionally to
gain an upper hand amongst their peers and gain social currency. They ridicule girls who look
different, dare to be bold and raise their voice.
At some point, we need to ask the question….did they learn that from us?
*The views expressed in this report are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily shared by the “Hear My Voice…” organization or publications or the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Cynthia Bruno is an enthusiastic advocate for women’s empowerment. Through her consulting business she helps companies and organizations develop branding strategies and marketing plans. She also helps individuals improve their presentation skills and professional image with targeted consulting sessions. As the Morning Show anchor on WCIA 3 News, and in her time as a reporter, Cynthia has spent eight years in front of the camera honing in on these skills. She’s excited to share her expertise with others. Cynthia is also the co-founder of Girls Go For It, a program that works to develop the leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit and professional abilities of girls. You can reach Cynthia at email@example.com.