I Want What I Want…(wait, is that okay?)

(Cross posted to “SA Women Lead” – sawomenlead.com )

Time to chalk up another win for Twitter.

Not just for being a great social networking platform (for me, that’s a given).  The win comes from Twitter’s ability – yet again – to make me think about something I would not normally consider.  This time – it caused me to consider my own comfort level with the concept of ambition.

Recently, a quote was tweeted by Bobbie Denise Cole, a fantastic young professional in residence life, that talked about ambition.  Here’s the tweet:

Bobbie Denise Cole @BDeniseCole Bobbie Denise Cole

“A defiant charge to women to ‘reclaim ambition as a virtue.’ -Debra Condren #wihsng #wlsalt

13 Feb via Twitter for BlackBerry®  

This call, from researcher, author and executive coach Debra Condren, is something difficult I believe for women to do.  Ambition in and of itself is not a dirty word. However, ambition in women has long been perceived by women and men alike as a negative combination.  Generally socialized to be conciliatory and peace-makers, women are not “supposed” to be ambitious; rather, we are expected to “play nice”, “let others win” and be “happy with what we have”.  This relational straight-jacket has long relegated women to play second fiddle to men in a variety of venues, most notably the workplace.  In stark contrast, ambition in men is considered to be something to admire.  Questions like, “What are your ambitions?” are correlated with positive perceptions for men, whereas the same questions are viewed negatively for women, unless the “ambitions” expressed by women are acceptable female goals (i.e. “My ambition is to have a family”).  Research about this information is available in both Dr. Condren’s book, Ambition is Not a Dirty Word, and Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock’s book, Women Don’t Ask).

Something about all of these perceptions, expectations and assumptions really leaves me cold.  And quite frankly – it’s a load of crap.

Why is it that it’s NOT okay for me to state publicly what I want out of life?  Why is it, simply because of my gender, I am not allowed to openly discuss what my long-term goals are.  And, if I am viewed as assertively pursuing those goals, why I am viewed quite negatively because of it? 

I realize that many people reading this entry right now would immediately say, “We would never view a woman in aggressive pursuit of her goals in a negative way.”  To you, I offer this challenge.  Really think about the last time you interacted with a woman who was openly and articulately clear about her goals, and was working very hard to achieve them.  Perhaps she was volunteering to take on projects and tasks.  Perhaps she was openly expressing her concern about an issue facing the team at work or at an organizational meeting.  Maybe she was offering up specific and definitive solutions to some problem facing your organization.  Or perhaps, after an issue was brought up and others in the room negated her perspective, she kept bringing it up in an attempt to convince the group the direction was the right one to pursue?

What were your thoughts about her then?

Reflect on that for a moment.  If you’re like me – that type of reflection is like a bucket of ice water being dumped on my head. I have found myself, thankfully in my own mind and not through external means, saying things like, “Who does she think she is?” and “Can’t she just stop – she’s really coming on way too strong.”  Well – too strong for who?  For me?  Or for the society that continues to categorize women as passive, compliant and peace-making members of our society? Or maybe for both?

My challenge for anyone wishing to take it is simple.  The next time a woman speaks up or stands up for herself – celebrate and support her willingness to do so.  If a woman undermines herself as they discuss their dreams or goals – encourage them to stop belittling their own abilities and to start championing their skills and contributions.  Sponsor, don’t just mentor a woman, and talk about them to other people as vehemently and in similar terms as you would a male colleague.  For women – own who you are and where you want to go, and don’t apologize for doing so.  It’s your life – make it count and do so on your own terms.

The truth is, women’s voices are important, but so is their right and ability to own, voice and aggresively pursue their dreams.  We all need to embrace and support this idea if things are to truly change not only for women, but also for men – so let’s start now.

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HELP! I need somebody….

(cross posted to http://sawomenlead.wordpress.com)

Asking for help has never been my strong suit.  EVER. In fact, I have a history of doing everything in my power to avoid it.  I will haul my own luggage through an airport and through a hotel lobby even when help is offered.  I will balance multiple shoulder bags and boxes down a flight of stairs even when a colleague (who is carrying nothing) volunteers to take something out of my hands.  I will multitask on projects to the point of exhaustion, even when others are there to take some of the load.  I take on far more responsibility than any sane person should ever consider doing – both at work, at home and in other arenas.

Women in general have a horrible habit of not asking for what we need.  There are reems of research on this phenomenon – in sociology, career advancement literature, negotiation literature, family/work life balance issues, promotion and tenure practices – the list goes on and on and on.  We are conditioned at a young age to not speak up for ourselves and to “make peace”; which often means putting other’s needs ahead of our own.  We stop self-advocating.  We stop even being able to identify our own needs.  The result is that we continue to take on more at work in exchange for more stress instead of more salary or time off.  We continue to do the lions share of domestic chores in the household, even when we’re working one or two jobs at a time.  We continue to be the primary caregivers to our children or aging parents, even when we are completely exhausted and we have a partner who could help.  We continue to carry the load alone, and we rarely ask for help.

This past week, after several more rounds of “No, I’ve got this” or “I can do that – no problem!”, I finally took a moment to think about this habit.  I asked myself, “Why do I do this?  Why do I feel the need to carry all of this weight on my shoulders, all the time?”  I didn’t immediately come to an answer, but I knew it couldn’t continue.  My health, my sanity and my well-being were at stake.

I was forced upon reflection to come to two conclusions.  I don’t ask for help because I am afraid – afraid of many things.  First, I’m afraid of appearing weak – as if I cannot do something and, therefore, would be perceived as “less than” in some ways.  My inner feminist doesn’t do well with this. I am woman, dammit, hear me roar AND watch me carry all this crap around ALL THE TIME.  Now that I type this out – it doesn’t seem so fierce.

Second, I’m afraid of letting people in.  I have built this amazingly strong wall around me – to protect no doubt the fear, anxiety and doubt I have in my own abilities – and I do not want to have any cracks in that wall.  If I let someone else see all of this “stuff” – I lose.  If I let someone in – ostensibly to help – I can get hurt – and I lose.  It’s happened before, so why should I let it happen again?  If I ask for help – I will ultimately lose.  Now that I type this out – it seems pretty ridiculous.

So I took a chance.  Last week, I sent an email to a core group of women that I trust. I told them all about the rapid changes and additional stressors that were happening on my campus – but this time, I didn’t try to push it off as ‘I can handle this!” or “Really, it’s no big deal”.  Rather my approach was along the lines of, “This is happening to me, right now, and it’s hard.  It’s really hard, and I need support.”  I will admit, I was scared.  I was worried that these women would, somewhere in the recesses of their minds, think of me as less than, as weak, as not a real woman in some way. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The support came flying at me in all directions – DMs on twitter, public tweets about offering up support and positive energy, phone calls, emails – you name it, it came.  I even got a card in the mail this week (thanks, Laurie!)  Not one time did someone say that I was being weak.  Never did anyone push back and offer to solve my issues.  Not once did someone say “How dare you dump all your stuff on me!”  No – the gift I received from my personal moment of bravery was 100% genuine support, empathy, caring and affirmation from so many people. I was not only surprised, I was humbled.

The truth is – asking for help is not weak – it’s courageous.  We’ve seen some of the stories from other women recently about their triumphs over fear, weakness, uncertainty and doubt by simply reaching out to others.  Asking for help is one of the bravest things anyone can do, and it connects you to others in a tangible, supportive and amazing way.  The result is – you become stronger when you ask for help.  Your network is so much stronger than your individual resolve. 

When is the last time you asked for help?