Monday, April 4, 2016

Do we discriminate against ourselves?

My friend at work (let's call her Susan) was recently thinking about applying to become a supervisor. Susan exceeded all of the stipulations in the job posting including having over twice the number years of experience required. And yet, when Susan was thinking about applying she was legitimately concerned that she was not good enough to apply. Because Susan felt like if she was going to be THE female supervisor, that she had to be beyond kick-ass to set a standard for what a woman in that role can be. Otherwise, in Susan's mind they'd see her failures as a failure of women to be able to perform that role.

Yeah, from an outside perspective it's crazy for someone to feel that they represent their entire gender, race, religion, etc. But at the same time, in industrial engineering settings where there are few women in an organization, and even fewer (or none) in management - we do often hold other women (and ourselves) accountable for "representing women".

As I type this, I can hear how silly that sounds. But something about the environment makes me react when one woman is under-performing, or using what appears to be a "maiden in distress" tactic to get other people to do her job, or otherwise reinforcing negative stereotypes that are still prevalent in our work environment. Maybe it's because it brings me back to memories like when it was the middle of a big troubleshooting effort, and some guy who didn't know me assumed I was incompetent and made jokes about me being great for a secretary. And so later, I feel like a woman who doesn't "prove people wrong" is somehow losing ground that the rest of us are trying to gain. Women have been the industry for decades, and there must be a reason why we are treading water when it comes to the race towards equality.

I wish it was just me; I know that there are a lot of us who feel that way... But when I step back for a second, I realize that the women I'm judging for not "representing women" are not actually any worse than their male counterparts. Because I believe they represent us as a whole, my expectations for them (and for myself) are unfairly high. Just as my friend Susan's expectations for herself as a potential supervisor were unfairly high. As she described her "shortcomings" it was clear that she thought she should have manager level experience to perform a supervisor level role.

Whatever we want to call this mindset (which is a mix of imposter's syndrome and believing that we need to represent all women), we need to collectively snap out of it. No other woman represents us as individuals, and we don't represent other women. By perpetuating this thought process, and not applying to jobs when we are qualified (and not overqualified) we are becoming complacent in constructing the glass ceilings that limit us from progress.We shouldn't have to outperform men to be considered equals.

So give yourself, and other women, a break. Don't disqualify yourself from a position before you've even given it a shot, and try to not blame other women for causing discrimination you see in other parts of your life with their shortcomings. The only way we'll be judged as individuals (as we should be) is if we start to change the rhetoric.