Back when I was working in Corporate Strategy for a digital marketing agency, I was preparing for a meeting with a potential strategic partner. It was that lull before the meeting begins when you awkwardly make small talk. Someone mentioned wanting water and that we should grab some water bottles for our guests. I was the most junior person in the room, so I probably should have been the one to go get them. But I was also the only female in the meeting, on either side of the table. I knew if I went and got those waters that I would be viewed throughout that meeting as the girl who’s there to get stuff. To make sure everyone is taken care of. I wanted to be respected just like everyone else. I wanted my ideas and questions taken seriously. And so I sat there. Didn’t move an inch. Did that thing you do when you don’t want the teacher to call on you, and so you don’t make direct eye contact. My boss went and got the waters.
This may seem like a silly story and like I was way overthinking it. And I may have been. But these are the silly things that we as women have to think about. Will my fetching a few water bottles or the color of my shirt or the shade of my lipstick impact the ability of those around me to respect me for my brain? It’s wrong. It’s so wrong. In fact, it’s complete bullshit. But sadly it is still our reality.
So I walk two tracks in tandem. One track is strategically navigating the corporate world in which we live today. I don’t get the water. I don’t wear hot pink to a meeting with a conservative company just in case that causes their perception of me to subconsciously or consciously be shaped not in my favor. And I advise women around me to do the same. To be cognizant and considerate about the biases that still exist and the tendencies we as women often have which can sometimes decelerate our career trajectory relative to our male counterparts. Being more collaborative in nature, many women give credit to the team in performance reviews and try to avoid coming across conceited. I say brag. When there’s an administrative task to be done which is in no one’s job description, women are often assigned or even volunteer. It’s nice to be nice, but it takes time and energy away from more strategic activities. I say don’t volunteer – at least not more than anyone else. Women tend to shy away from applying for jobs or going for promotions when the job description uses the word “expert.” I’ll bet you are an expert, and if not yet, then you can quickly become one. I say go for it.
The second track I walk is one which doesn’t accommodate the status quo. It’s longer-term. It’s putting myself in a position of influence, so I can continue to fight against the system which is making track one even a thing. It’s putting myself at the head of the table, so even if I get the waters, people know I have every right to be there. It’s building my credibility over time. It’s letting my work speak for itself. It’s doing work which speaks so loudly that there’s no way a conversation about my shirt could even be heard.
Like you, I’m upset that women have to trouble themselves with these things. That I’m even writing a blog post about who fetches water bottles. You may think it’s trivial, and I’d agree. Which is why I’m frustrated. But it’s also why I work every day to put more women in positions of influence. To teach them how to navigate track one so they too can work to eliminate it. Help me. If color of attire gets brought up in a debrief, shut it down. If you’re assigning administrative work, spread it among men and women alike. If you’re at a table full of strong opinions and personalities, pause to see who can’t get a word in. Ask them what they think.
I know we’re moving in the right direction. And I know the more we educate and spread awareness the quicker we’ll get there. So grab yourself a water, stay hydrated, and let’s sprint down track two.
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