As a teenager, taking driver’s education training for my license was the source of several notable family dramas. My brother and I would alternately tell our parents which of their merges, turns or speeds were illegal or ill-advised, and they had the fun task of either contradicting the “expert” or telling us how driving really worked.
Thankfully, the discrepancy between our driving teachers didn’t have a lasting impact on the practice of driving. It got me thinking, though, about how much more women leaders get conflicting signals and messages when it comes to our place in business, such as “speak up but don’t be pushy” or “lead with confidence but don’t contradict your boss.”
These messages go beyond the work environment and to core of whether or not you’re allowed to be in the room — not to mention at the head of the table. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, highlights this in her TED talk on the subject.
“…At Facebook we hosted a very senior official and he came in to meet with senior execs from around Silicon Valley. And everyone kinda sat at the table and then he had these two women who were traveling with him, who were very senior in the department,” Sandberg says. “I told them ‘sit at the table, come on, sit at the table.’ And they sat on the side of the room… No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table.”
But are these behaviors learned well before women show up to a job, or even apply for an interview?
For insights on how girls are showing up in the classroom I spoke with teacher Katie Greenfield, who has taught General Ed to Advanced Placement history and leadership at a private school in California. A mother of two young daughters herself, Greenfield says that the way girls and boys approach the classroom is already different in high school.
Focus on Feelings, Not Facts
While a male student wouldn’t hesitate to say he’s bored, argue about an answer on a test or correcting the teacher, females at the same maturity level seem to be much more aware of offending the teacher and internalize the belief that negativity in the classroom is bad.
Now imagine the same young girl in her first job, knowing the team leader or manager is making a mistake whether in calculations for finances or in an advertising pitch. Would she speak up or approach the situation entirely differently, maybe saying nothing at all?
“It’s hard to say if the student simply lacks social skills and is unhindered by social pressure,” Greenfield says. “The very smart girls who do speak out often learn from strong, smart mothers and will voice their opinion regardless.”
Social Pressure to Shut Up
Even if subtle, there is still societal backlash against strong women with opinions. Greenfield relates it to the fictional character Temperance Brennan of the book series and the Fox television series “Bones.” Brennan is characterized as incredibly intelligent but unaware of social norms — her unfiltered opinions in fiction result in humorous situations but not much stigmatization, as her skills outstrip those of her peers. The problem Greenfield sees is that girls in the classroom haven’t yet “earned” through career success the ability to be socially unaware of the consequences of sharing unfiltered opinions, so the backlash is much stronger.
This unspoken standard may be driving even more smart and opinionated young women to silence until they feel they’ve earned the right to speak up. While some would argue that this lack of awareness fosters uninhibited sharing, for women in the workplace, naiveté contributes to stalled professional progress.
Greenfield is conscious of these unspoken rules and expectations for her own daughters, aged 7 and 10. “It can be a challenge to balance acknowledging my daughter’s right to her own opinion and sharing opinions that offend others.”
Any parent of a young child who yells out “Mommy that woman is fat!” understands the challenge. While she believes it begins with respecting and honoring conscious decisions, Greenfield and her husband, also an educator, work on teaching when it is appropriate to announce those opinions to others.
Women need this type of instruction and advice from mentors in the workplace more than ever. The question of if women are allowed at the table, or to have an opinion and to voice the opinion, is changing — and so the next challenge may just be how to express that opinion to garner respect and with authority. Without support on how to communicate, women may continue to stay silent long after they have a place at the table.
While much is written about how women lead in groups, I wanted to go back to the earliest training grounds for this practice: the group project.
In all her years in the classroom, it’s only ever been girls who approach with the idea of doing a group project alone – a problem sometimes exaggerated by the feeling of “carrying” the grade of a weaker classmate.
The problem is that in the workplace, departments work collaboratively, and it’s often completely unrealistic to take on the work of four people. Additionally, women who address issues of being overworked or underpaid may not realize how they’ve put themselves in that very position by volunteering to do more work without appropriate compensation.
How do these lessons impact our current and future female leaders and how can we address them in the classroom and beyond?
About the Author:
Kelly Azevedo is the founder of She’s Got Systems, a custom coaching program that leads clients to get support, documenting and dominating in their fields. She has worked in startup, successful six-figure and million-dollar online businesses, helping owners create the systems to serve their needs.
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