Daria Istrate, Harvard MBA, Consultant, Healthcare Sector
Fresh out of college, with limited family obligations, I perceived little to no difference between the women and men I worked with in consulting or interacted with during my MBA studies. As I advanced in my career journey, however, I observed more and more challenges faced by women in the workplace and came to understand how those challenges affect women’s progression.
1. The Exclusive “Casual Intensity”
Many of the challenges that women face in the workplace are gender-specific and different from the ones men experience. The challenges may seem small at first, but they add up to such an extent that sometimes they result in career delays or an indefinite “layover” in a middle-management position. One issue that I myself have experienced in corporate America is being labeled “aggressive” and facing the potential penalty that comes with that label. I am a driven, ambitious, results-oriented, and very capable professional—and I wonder if a man with similar traits and aspirations would receive a similar label. I also come from a European culture that tends to be more direct, even blunt, than most Americans, and although I have spent the last ten years living and working in the U.S., some of that behavior still manifests itself. I tend to err on the side of assertiveness in my day-to-day interactions with my co-workers, bosses, and direct reports—a trait that is not traditionally expected from or associated with women in this country.
Traditional expectations are what trigger unconscious biases: social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Problems then arise when what people expect from others does not match the reality. For example, one might expect women to be warm and caring, men to be firm and decisive. One would then be taken aback by a woman who doesn’t display a motherly instinct or, in my case, a woman who’s very assertive.
What’s frequently expected and rewarded in women, within the American corporate environment, is a “casual intensity” that combines hard work with fun. I was given this feedback with white gloves, wrapped in an overall positive communication that needed to be read between the lines. In fact, I had to look the phrase up because I had no idea what it meant. “Casual intensity” sounds good in theory, and it’s something that’s also rewarded in other parts of the world, but the way it is implemented in the U.S. and particularly on the West Coast is troublingly gender-specific. Men tend to have an easier time displaying and getting credit for the elusive “casual intensity,” while still achieving their goals and being career-driven. For women, by contrast, displaying the right balance of hard work and fun is more difficult, if you want to avoid censure for being too “aggressive.” It’s something that I myself continue to work on.
2. Imposter Syndrome—Individual or Systemic?
A lot has been written about the imposter syndrome—feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments. A common reaction to this feeling is to work harder than anyone else, in order to get in front and prove yourself. I believe the syndrome can start early in childhood; at least it did for me. The general consensus in my family was that my brother was a genius, a world-class chess champion, whereas I did well in school because I was a hard worker. My older brother also did well in school when he applied himself, in spite of his busy schedule of training and competing. For him, however, academic excellence came with ease and was done as needed, while for me it was a full-time job and my sole focus.
Thirty years later, I am still battling the consequences of this family dynamic in my everyday life. Some may argue that it has translated into a solid work ethic, but I feel that with every new job, new role, or a new promotion comes with a lot of pressure to prove something (to myself; to the world; to both?) and that if I don’t excel at every part of my job, I will betray the fact that I don’t deserve to hold that position. I believe that this problem is systemic rather than individual, and that women experience it more often than men. The familial dynamic I described—in which the son is deemed naturally talented while the daughter is viewed as excelling only through hard work—did not occur just in my family; it is something that many young girls grow up with and then need to overcome later in life. Usually the dynamic’s effects are subtle, occurring in your subconscious, but it stays with you nonetheless, influencing you in ways that are often hard to identify.
With all the demands on our time and our lives, it is important to set aside mental and physical space to reflect, and also to be an active participant in your own life. Women’s groups and communities can help you in this process. We should all take the time to identify and engage with the right group(s), and always remember that we’re not alone! Change starts with each one of us.
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