Does diversity and inclusion extend to strong women too?

I’m very happy that diversity and inclusion is top of mind at most workplaces. And I think progress is being made! Because, acknowledging problems is the first step. I personally check off a couple of the diversity boxes. But I’ve been thinking about one box in particular: being a woman. Even more specifically, being an outspoken, opinionated, and direct woman.

In the past I’ve experienced sexual harassment, and yes, me too, too. But that’s not what I want to talk about today (although I’m glad others are continuing that conversation.) What I want to talk about is what happens when women are actually in the power positions. How inclusive is the workplace when we are the leaders? How open is the workplace to diverse forms of female energy?

I could give you some stats, a la Sandberg style, but we are amongst friends here. So I’m just going to share my personal experiences and use those as a proxy for women like me. Given conversations I’ve had with other strong women, my story is one they share, and so is the struggle.

First some background information about me. I’ll describe myself in my own words. Then I’ll share how I’m described in the professional arena.

My description:

  • I speak in a direct, honest manner–what you see is what you get. No playing games.
  • I give constructive feedback if I see opportunies for improvement.
  • I share my ideas when I believe they can help make a project better.
  • I am not afraid to defend my POV, even if it’s unpopular. I’m typically not intimidated by group think.
  • I am decisive and can help give a team the license to make a choice–not just drive consensus–so they can move forward
  • I’ll be an active member of a conversation, and make sure my voice is heard

Now, how I’ve been described in the workplace:

  • Overly aggressive
  • Too opinionated
  • Intimidating to others
  • Insensitive
  • Confrontational

It is upsetting to see these things written. Largely because I have carried a lot of shame about them. As a person who cares deeply about being successful, its depressing to think that who you are as a person could be the thing that holds you back in your career. Most frustrating, is that none of this feedback is about my work–it’s about how I make other people feel. It negates the fact that I am consistently high performing, delivering big results for the company.

I would be happy to take the constructive feedback on board if it didn’t seem that most of it would be different, if a man with the same traits was being assessed.

In the past, I tried to internalize the feedback: I’ve practiced being smaller, quieter, and more deferential to the other (male) voices in a room. And, I got way more positive feedback! But, I also got way less done. And I did more work that I knew was wrong. It was soul crushing for me and bad for the company.

But things changed recently when my boss told me, “Shanee, you’re a force of nature.” In our review she had really positive feedback and I stopped her to tell her that I know I need to work on all my negative traits (outspoken, decisive etc). She laughed and said no. She encouraged me to tap in to my strength instead of treating it like a handicap. It has been liberating! And, I’ve grown more in the last six months than I have for years. It feels like I had been locked with shackles–held back because my directness, my opinions, and my uncommon form of femininity were too much for people to handle. But my boss came by and set me free. I didn’t even know how strong I could be because I never fully stretched my limbs. I still don’t think I’ve reached top speeds.

The problem is that my boss is the outlier. Most before her gave me the thinly veiled sexist feedback. Not because they were actually sexist individuals. The opposite! These were all wonderful pro-female individuals who loved and supported me. But unconscious bias is a sneaky b*. It’s cultural. It’s ingrained. They were giving me the feedback that would allow me to fit in. To conform to the culture of the people around me. But that’s not inclusion! That’s enabling exclusion.

Is the onus on me to be the way society wants me to be? Or is the onus on society to accept the version of me that’s the most authentic?

Men all around me are talking louder, interrupting more, sharing their ideas more, giving me their opinions (regardless of how junior they are to me), and those men are being rewarded (elected president, too) . Should I make sure that I’m not intimidating them, contradicting them, questioning them? And hope that by going unnoticed I can sneak my way up the corporate ladder. Or should I demand that the world accept and reward me for my impact.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that inclusion is a layered concept that should go beyond just hiring women and calling it a day. It should extend to hiring and supporting all types of women, especially those of us who are daring to challenge the status quo.

I am woman. Hear me roar. I’m sick of whispering.

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