Mailbag: A Woman in China

Q:  How do I answer questions in an interview that are about my personal life?  As a young woman, I am always asked two questions: am I married? Do I plan to have children?  And some of my friends are often asked about where their parents live, how old they are, etc.

A:  I feel I have to provide some context for this question.  I have several coaching clients who are Chinese, have come to the US to study and intend to return to their own country immediately or within a few years of receiving their degree.  This question comes from one of them…and the sad thing is that it could have come from any one of them (now or future).

These kinds of questions are illegal in the US, but that hardly makes them extinct so I’m going to answer this question for two reasons: first, because the approach I suggest for my coaching clients is good general advice for anyone who expects and fears a particular question in interviewing, and second, because whether it’s a calculated (or blundering) risk during hiring or a political minefield once you’ve been hired, many Americans will still have to face some similar question at some point (or several) in their professional lives.  It’s worth thinking about and preparing for.  Read more

Article Review: The Confidence Gap

If you haven’t read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s piece in the Atlantic titled “The Confidence Gap,” you should.  There’s a lot of really important thoughts on gender differences in the workplace packed into a single, dense longform piece.

Confidence matters, almost as much as – or perhaps more than – competence.

I’ve been saying this for years, sometimes quoting some of the same citations, but mostly relying on my own life experiences of watching incredibly confident young men, my peers, overcome all manner of outrageous odds to succeed…despite being less talented than many of our female peers.  This article resonates deeply with me, and, I expect, will create a similar tug of feelings in many women: relief that their experience is normative, that they are not alone, while at the same time being deeply frustrating as confirmation that the world rewards the irrelevant.

I do take issue with a couple of things in the article though.  Most importantly, I specialize in getting people to “fake” confidence…it’s more complex than that, of course, but it’s much easier than Ms. Kay and Ms. Shipman seem to acknowledge. Read more

New volley in the apology wars

I’ve written before about apologies.  Women do it too much, and it makes the social conduct code all murky because people then have gendered expectations for apologies AND falsely imbue those excessive apologies with all sorts of (mostly subconscious) baggage.  Bleah.  (Or, if you prefer, as my spellcheck seems to, BLERG.)

There’s some new research that would be interesting if it weren’t so poorly designed…but it’s fodder for a good rant, so here goes:

Out of the esteemed minds of researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton, is a series of studies that they say points to this: when you apologize for things outside your control, you are seen as more trustworthy. Read more

It matters what you wear (lawyers edition)

I was interested to read Amanda Hess’ recent Slate article on the perils of wardrobe choice for lawyers.  There’s a very strict, if not obvious or consistent, code of propriety for men and women – she outlines some of the challenges that apply to everyone, as well as the disproportionate impact on female lawyers, who had to pass the bar like everyone else but get reduced to sexpots if they wear the wrong heels.  The gender bias starts with the click bait title: Female lawyers who dress too “sexy” are apparently a “huge problem” in the courtroom.

None of this is a surprise to me.  One of the workshops I’m called upon to give at the undergraduate level at least a couple of times every year is my spiel on “Wardrobe – why you need to look the part.”  It’s the least fun workshop I give; pretty much just me, showing slides of good and bad wardrobe choices and getting the kids to articulate their assumptions and biases about a person based on their looks.  It’s ugly, it’s problematic on very many levels, and I keep doing it…because people really need it.

So here are some of my insights, based on four years of telling people how to dress for job interviews and internships. Read more

Creative and Bossy – What childhood conspires to kill in us

I wrote a short post last week on tensions between helping women succeed NOW, walking a tightrope of pseudo-masculine but acceptably feminine leadership techniques through the minefield of modern American business culture, and helping encourage women to be disruptors of this unfortunate system that has evolved/metastasized with so many terribly ingrained disparities.

On the one hand, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing some women excel at a super-aggressive style of leadership.  Unapologetic.  Direct and brutal.  Ruthlessly effective.  Demanding of your attention and compliance.  We suffer through this form of leadership so often, and watch men elevated and celebrated for being such leaders.  It’s a guilty pleasure to see women beat them at their own game.

But while I occasionally teach folks to mimic pieces of this leadership style (because it comes in handy to be able to present yourself convincingly as pathologically self-assured now and then), I never ever work to shape people into such tyrants.  Not only is it profoundly unlikely to succeed for the women and minorities who make up my coaching clientele, it’s not a good leadership identity.  A sparely used tool, sure.  But an unfortunate way to actually attempt to lead your life, much less lead other people.

So, that’s why I feel so conflicted about the Ban Bossy campaign that is the latest brain child of Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In folks. Read more

What it means to soften your edges with questions

There’s a great little essay making the rounds on HowlRound, which you probably haven’t read unless you’re a theater academic or practitioner.  But it’s a good one, and while it’s a meditation on some of the awkward and undercutting choices that female theater directors are prone to making, you’re likely to recognize yourself in there, regardless of specific profession.

Language Worth Repeating, by Jess K. Smith Read more

What smart women look like

I have mixed feelings about Lean In (the book and the organization).  In fact, it’s better described as an internal hurricane, roiling my kishkes…but some of their initiatives are easier to talk about, at least before we see how well they’re executed.  In concept, I’m a tremendous fan of their partnership with Getty Images (incidentally, where I get most of the pictures embedded in this blog), which attempts to broaden the scope of women as they are depicted in stock photos.

We can’t help it.  We internalize what we take in.  Our mind’s eye is very impressionable, and the world at present is not putting a very broad set of images in front of us. Read more

Mailbag: The Question of Cupcakes

Q: I just joined a board for a local nonprofit.  I’m a great baker and want to make a good impression on my fellow board members.  Can I bring cupcakes to a meeting?  We’re not talking sloppy homemade stuff – it’ll be homemade, but Martha Stewart quality, which is why I think it’ll add to my superwoman credibility, but my roommate disagrees.

A:  What are you trying to say with these cupcakes?  Sadly, a nice gesture of bringing food to a board meeting (or work in general) is far from harmless or innocent…though your pastry snobbery doesn’t make me feel like you’ve got pure and innocent intentions in the first place.

Cupcakes.  When a woman bakes for a group of professionals, it’s overshadowed by decades of passive and subservient women being forced to fetch coffee or tend to a home instead of being respected as professionals.  It doesn’t matter who you are, that history comes into the room with you like an uninvited guest.  When you make the decision to bake – or not – for your colleagues, at work or on a board, you have to stare that guest in the face and decide how you will co-exist with him. Read more

Sorry – But should you be?

Women apologize more than men.  I’m one of the people who, when asked to take note and keep track of how many times in a day I utter the words “I’m sorry,” – in ANY context – find myself sort of horrified at how many times I’m apologizing.

I’m sorry, you guys…
I’m sorry, you guys…

Oh, but I’m not apologizing, I want to say.  “I’m sorry” can very often mean “I’m sad that this condition exists.”  And it doesn’t help that somewhere I picked up “I’m sorry?” as my go to phrase for “I didn’t hear that, could you please repeat what you said?” (Where’s that on the dialect map?)

It still hurts you in the workplace.  Read more