Rejecting perfection

August 12, 2014

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave. This isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in." - Rachael Ellison

Breast pump

I’m thinking a lot right now about women's quest for perfection. Often this desire lies uninvestigated within us, unquestioned. It's simply part of who we are. A woman I interviewed yesterday for a future show talked about this: she mentors young women who feel they have to exceed every expectation out there, and they're exhausted. It was the main theme of my last show, Killing the Ideal Woman. And it came up in my conversation with coach Rachael Ellison, who gave such thought provoking insights in The Motherhood Factor.

This is my second blog post springing from my interview with Rachael earlier this summer.

She counsels working parents who want to achieve a saner life than they feel they currently have. 

For starters, she says, it’s hard for women who, until they had kids, had leapt up the career ladder two rungs at a time. Often these women are left reeling after they have a baby, faced with the possibility they may not be able to do everything - at home and at work - the way they'd like. One of her recent clients was a senior leader with a 10-month-old baby at home.

“She was really struggling,” Rachael says. “The hours at her job were very demanding. She was in a setting where she had to come in very early in the morning and leave quite late at night, so she really wasn’t able to spend time with her child.  She basically got to the point in our conversation where she said, ‘You know, I really don’t know if I can do this.'”

They talked through it, but ultimately the woman decided she should try to tackle her home/life problem the way her older female supervisor had. The woman had two children and had handled many major projects. Rachael's client admired her a lot. But what her client didn’t know at the time was that that woman also had a stay-at-home husband.

“There was no transparency,” says Rachael, “So she felt she had to follow the model of the generation prior.”

She felt immense pressure to perform and couldn’t let anyone at work see that she was flailing (that is flailing, not failing).

Society has enormous expectations for mothers. Essentially it wants us to be mothers above all else, no matter how much lip service it gives to our careers. That pressure to be supermom came up a few years ago when Rachael was running a new mothers group. One of the women in the group had been reporting back about her sessions with a lactation consultant.

This lactation consultant had the new (working) mom in quite a state. She informed her that if she pumped milk at 4p.m. on a given day at her office, her baby had to drink that milk at exactly 4p.m. the following day, or another day of the week. The lowdown: the milk that came out of her body at 4p.m. must be drunk at that exact same time for her baby to get the most benefit.

Talk about pressure.

“It is this horrible precedent, that this is what a good mother does,” says Rachael. “It’s so hard for mothers to pump at all at work. I’ve heard stories of mothers sitting up against a glass window, basically pumping in an open space. So people face a lot of challenges when pumping, and to be told you have to have your milk time correspond, it's just this impossible standard.”

In the end, the woman announced that timing her milk production and baby feeding to the same hour of the day was too hard. She stopped trying to achieve that particular feat. She resisted the consultant's advice.

We’re meant to be perfect mothers, perfect wives, and perfect workers. Few of us can possibly meet all those standards, but we still try, because the messages coming at us from the media, politicians, our families and other women tell us that's what we're supposed to be.

Finally, Rachael told me, part of her job is to let people know their everyday attempts to make it all work are echoed in others' lives.

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave – this isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in. This is an uphill battle.”

You can read my last post with Rachael, on workplace flexibility, here.

Cultivating your inner badass

January 30, 2014

Sophie Tucker, definitely a badass

When a listener described me as ‘badass’ last year I got an odd thrill. It didn’t sound like me at all: the self-doubting, not-sure-I-can-do-it person born and brought up in the self-deprecating UK.

So how can a person like me – or the old me, anyway, because I have been improving – become more ‘badass’? That was the question posed in a webinar I was on yesterday, courtesy of 85 Broads. Barbara Roche was the speaker. She’s a leadership communication coach who also teaches at the Wharton School of Business. She works with a lot of professional women who are highly accomplished. Yet many of them still have crises of confidence.

A lot of women pretty much live in that state. Lack of confidence has haunted me all my life. If women had the same sense of self-belief many men do, we’d be making far more of a mark on the world. But we're hampered by an inner voice that is always chattering, telling us we’re not quite up to par.

Cultivating confidence: 

  • Before I outline some of Barbara Roche's points, I'm putting a stake in the ground. Confidence comes from doing things that make you uncomfortable. At the start of each new job or project I've been a mass of nerves, questioning my abilities and worrying I'll flop. Looking back, I can see how much my confidence has grown over the years. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't taken on new challenges and done things that terrified me (like live radio). So at least some confidence comes from new experiences. That said, the evil inner voice still has a lot to answer for.
  • Barbara Roche started the session by defining ‘badass’. Turns out it has two definitions. She immediately rejected the first, ‘tough or aggressive’, and embraced the second: ‘formidable, excellent.’ I’ll take that one too. She said the point was to talk to us about “how to bring out the most formidable parts of yourself so you can seize the moment and advance in your career – or your family dynamics.”
  • Women "caveat all our sentences about what we're good at." Sound familiar? I've done this countless times. You start saying something positive about yourself and then insert a 'but'. One of the things Barbara forces clients to do is speak an entire sentence about themselves that does not include a caveat. And do it again - and again.

  • She cited the work of Carol Dweck of Stanford University, who has done a lot of work on mindsets.

 First, the fixed mindset:

Must be perfect

Fear of failure

Qualities set in stone

Then, the malleable mindset:

Continuously learning

Willing to try

Qualities are malleable

  • It probably won’t surprise you to learn most women Barbara sees have a fixed mindset. The majority of men have a malleable one. I’d say I am now much closer to having a malleable mindset, but for most of my life it was fixed, and I still struggle with some of those qualities.
  • One of Barbara's male clients told her he thought of himself as Arnold Schwarzennegar – yes, that’s how he began his days (as a badass, essentially). Whereas “most women look in the mirror and see flaws, things that are going wrong." You have to set an intention to start each day with a "growth mindset” in order to cultivate badassdom. 
  • Shed the people who are bringing you down: the colleague who wastes hours of your week moaning about their life, or the friend who is mired in negativity. They're sucking your energy and your ability to get anything done and feel good about yourself. It sounds a bit woo-woo, but bad energy saps you.

What I took away from this webinar was that a lot of what keeps women under-confident is in our heads. Yes, I knew that. But sometimes being reminded that this self-sabotaging mindset is just a mindset is helpful. I can attest that it takes practice to start silencing 'the voice' and getting it to talk to you in different and positive ways. It's difficult to break the habit of a lifetime. But it can be done - in stages. One suggestion? Start looking at the men around you and observing their behavior. I did this and marveled at their chutzpah (especially when they were years younger than me). Then I tried to copy it - within my own comfort zone, yes, but still, I took a leaf out of their collective book. 

One woman who truly fits the 'badass' moniker is Erika Napoletano. She's written a book called The Power of Unpopular. If you need a little female badass in your life, head to her site and check out some of her blog posts. And be prepared for some forthright opinions. 

The meaning of success

January 25, 2014

“A magnificent career comes from being a magnificent woman first. It’s a flipped-up, upside down paradigm of success.” – Emily Bennington

Living in New York City, it’s tough not to fall for the traditional US version of success: a good job, lots of money, the right title, address, and so on. Time and again in recent years, as I’ve diverged from a traditional career path, I’ve berated myself for not being successful enough. Some friends my age have titles with ‘VP’ or ‘partner’ in them. They seem to have all sorts of secret knowledge about the business world. They earn very well and have plenty of nice clothes. Yet I don’t want those jobs myself, so why am I beating myself up? I genuinely love what I do, even if I find myself wondering if it’s as ‘grown-up’ as what some of my friends do. We all compare ourselves to others – it’s a common career/life curse – but also, the society I live in tells me those outward trappings constitute success.

So it was refreshing to talk to Emily Bennington recently. She’ll be appearing in the next episode of The Broad Experience, along with Kathy Caprino. The topic is success – the traditional definition of it, why some people seem to think it’s achievable overnight, and re-framing the whole idea of success.

Emily teaches mindful or ‘conscious’ leadership to women. You’ll hear more in the show about how she came to that. She was such a mass of anxiety and ambition (or fear, as she later described it) during her early career that she finally burned out. This is a woman whose boss told her during her first ever performance review that he couldn’t promote her “because no one on this team respects you.” More on that during the episode.

She contends – and I, ever the cynic, listen hopefully – that you can achieve a leadership role at work by pursuing your career in a mindful way – taking others along with you rather than stepping on them to get where you want to go.

One of the interesting things Emily told me that I couldn’t fit into the finished show was that when she was researching her latest book, Who Says It’s a Man’s World, she found that most of the women she was surveying wanted very different things from their work life than she had when she was in the corporate world.

“Just coming from my own career, I was thinking everyone wanted to climb to the top of the ladder and have that corner office…and it was super interesting to find what they wanted was to be happier in their own lives.

It wasn’t that they weren’t ambitious, she says, but to them, success wasn’t ‘getting to the top’, it was being more content in their current situations. I think a lot of people feel the exact same way. We don’t all have the drive and energy to get to the top, but we do want to have more influence and to make our current work lives more meaningful than they are.

Tune in next week to find out about Emily’s prescription for a happier work life, which includes re-defining 'success'. For a more traditional view of what it is to be successful, and on why some groups in America do better than others, here's a piece from Sunday's New York Times by the controversial 'tiger mother' Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rosenfeld.

When daughters take over

January 15, 2014

Lady Mary Crawley, played by Michelle Dockery

This morning I had a conversation with Amy Katz, who heads the consultancy Daughters in Charge. I came across her by accident when I was on the 85 Broads site last week filling out my profile details. I spotted her company name and immediately gravitated towards it. I’ve done various stories on family businesses over the years, including one in 2012 on Generation Y business owners who hire their parents (in my interviewees’ case, it was their mothers who joined the company). But I’d never thought much about what happens when a daughter, rather than a son, steps into the family business, most often run by her dad.

If you’re one of those daughters, or if you know someone who is, I’d love to hear from you, because I’m planning a future show on this topic.

Amy says various issues can crop up when a daughter joins the family firm:

  • Some fathers alternate between being extremely protective of their little girls and wanting them to be gung-ho about the business. So on one hand they encourage their daughters to be at the company all hours, learning everything they possibly can and putting it into practice. But when the daughter gets pregnant, Dad becomes highly traditional and feels she should leave work to raise her family – something he would never suggest to his son if the son’s wife or partner had a baby.
  • Some parents use the ‘don’t call me Dad’ tactic – they want a daughter to get used to calling them by their first name at work. Amy says this kind of approach can inhibit a lot of women from being able to develop a style of their own at the office. This is often particularly tough for women in a male-dominated environment. 
  • Managing authority can be tricky for the daughter walking into the family business. She’s known many of the employees (often men) since she was a kid. Now she may have power over a lot of them. Discovering what kind of leadership style is comfortable for her, and them, is a challenge.

    Lady Mary of PBS’s Downton Abbey (above) is dealing with some of this at the moment. Her father doesn’t want her pretty head bothered with matters of business related to the family's vast estate, even though she has ideas about how to improve things. Attitudes have changed considerably since the early 1920s - today, after all, fathers are actually welcoming their daughters into the family firm. But old perceptions about women’s roles and demeanor are still lurking in most workplaces - and in the brains of many parents.