“You can be anything you want to be!” Classic parenting line. I remember my parents telling me that whilst passing the responsibility-baton trying to help me with my math homework. I’m pretty sure when I was 18 and still getting C’s and D’s in math we all finally made peace with the fact that I’d never be a mathematician… or accountant… or Architect. Really, any profession that was overly “mathy”.
Obviously the point they were trying to get across was that if I worked hard enough I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. But now as a (mostly) grown up woman I’ve noticed that when it comes to women, that “reach for the stars!” line should come with an asterisk.
You can be anything you want to be!*
*as long as you’re likable.
Inequality issues aside, technically yes, women can be whatever they want to be when it comes to professional occupations, and of course you should always aim to be a good person. It’s the personality traits that most women leaders naturally possess that they need to either keep in check, or suppress, if they hope to be successful. It almost feels like competing in a pageant. You may rock the Q+A portion, but if you don’t win the bikini contest you won’t get very far. Trying to maintain the perfect balance is confusing and downright exhausting:
Be friendly, but don’t be a pushover.
Be driven, but don’t be too aggressive.
Be charming, but don’t be too flirty.
Be tough, but don’t be a bitch.
Be passionate, but don’t be overly emotional.
I don’t think I could think of a better example of this than the most recent election.
Disclaimer: This is an example purely as it relates to the context of this post. No political affiliations nor am I interested in discussing stuff like walls or email servers.
First, Hillary Clinton. No matter who you voted for, or how you might feel about her as a person, I think most can agree that by her winning the nomination it was an important milestone for women everywhere. As I watched her campaign unfold it was fascinating, but unsurprising, to hear the scrutiny she faced compared to her male counterpart. How often did we hear about her wardrobe choices? Or the fact that she looked “tired” and “worn?” Did you take notice that during the debates she sat quietly, waited her turn and spoke calmly? Not once did she speak “off the cuff” or become overly emotional.
Now consider Trump. He was rude, abrasive, emotional, impulsive, abrupt, aggressive and at times, outwardly disrespectful. He was like a walking bingo card of all the professional female personality trait “no-no’s”.
Like her or not, Hillary faced a tougher battle having to remain 100% composed the entire time, because she knew if she lost her shit, even just a little bit, it would be game over. She’s been walking the tightrope her entire life and she knew what she was up against:
It’s hard work to present yourself in the best possible way. You have to communicate in a way that people say, “Okay, I get her.” Which can be more difficult for a woman. Because who are your role models? If you want to run for Senate or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men. And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens.
Her point is heartbreakingly honest and it applies to all ambitious professional women. We continue to fight for gender equality, but I think perhaps some women confuse equality with being treated exactly like the men do. The definition of equality is we have the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. So, essentially we are fighting for access to the same stuff, but unfortunately I don’t think there will ever be a time where we will not be judged extra harshly because of our gender.
The good news is that women are masters at suppressing our emotions when we need to get shit done, and this just might be one more thing we will quietly accept as we conquer the world - like our periods. But can gender equality change any of this?