Not too long ago, I found myself listening to Jessica Alba, actress and founder of Honest, a successful company that has brought transparency to the retail world. Alba’s company promises to tell customers the truth about where its home and baby products come from, what is in them and what their impact on the environment is. During her talk, she made a comment that stuck with me. “I did not think I was smart for a really long time,” Alba said. This statement resonated with me because I, too, always considered myself “less than” in the intelligence category. I realized many women suffer the same misconception — that they are not smart, so they better be funny, pretty, friendly, wealthy or something more to compensate. Why do so many women in business feel like they need to overcompensate?
The current environment is complicated by conflicting expectations. On the one hand, it tells us that we are plenty brilliant enough to perform in whatever field strikes our fancy. On the other hand, it tells us we have got to be fashionable, in shape, friendly and helpful. It can be difficult to navigate all of these expectations and determine which to try to exceed, and which to ignore.
Some of us navigate all of these factors and find ourselves in a position where we feel fully realized as entrepreneurs. Of course, that does not mean we are out of goals — but we are able to look in the mirror and greet the powerful forces we are. We can see, concretely, that we have succeeded: we are successful businesswomen. That is a crucial moment for us to feel proud of ourselves and reflect on the steps we took to get here.
So here is some practical advice to women climbing up the ladder — or creating their own ladder to climb — who may be feeling “less than.”
From a young age, I was taller than most of the kids in my class. As I reached my teens, I grew to be the tallest girl — taller than 98 percent of all of my classmates. Growing up in the 1980s, I was also told (not by my parents, but by peers, society and the media) that women are not supposed to be taller than men. You can imagine the challenges I faced in my teens and through my twenties with dating, clothing and a lot of stares.
Figuratively, this example applies to many women’s experiences, but unfortunately not all are lucky enough to have the support I did and end up internalizing what their culture teaches them. As women, we need to redefine the standards set and we need to lead by example with our children and our friends.
If you hear someone ridiculing another person’s appearance, for instance, do not be afraid to speak up. Many people do not realize how a seemingly small, offhand comment can be internalized. In entrepreneurial environments, snap judgments can get nasty in surprising ways. It is essential that women in business hold each other to a higher standard.
Be bold in your willingness to take risks, learn new skills and share your ideas. As women entrepreneurs, we need to take chances on our ideas and encourage our fellow businesswomen’s efforts too. We need to try things that nobody has ever tried before. We should be cultivating real, lasting business relationships using both our amazing skills as women and the business skills we have mastered.
Encourage the ladies in your life to lean into their own boldness. You can do far more than a pat on the back or a positive word. Think of how often a girlfriend mentions something they are interested in, or a problem they are trying to solve or a cause in the world that keeps them awake at night. Be an ear, and do it consistently. Listening is the best place to start, in business and in life. Together, we make bolder business strides.
Walk in Other People’s Shoes
This is an exercise in perspective. Really look at your coworkers, your customers and your clients. We humans are not that good at hiding our emotions, even in professional situations. We are pretty easy to read. Imagine yourself in the shoes of women you want to encourage. Explore solutions from different angles and share your insights. Invite them to do the same.
Network — Then Network Some More
You really never know when someone you met at a product launch party ages ago could be the perfect connection for someone else. Even when your mentees aren’t present, you can be thinking about what kinds of people will be helpful. Talk them up to new connections too.
If you really want to give practical networking help, file away resources like writing samples, resumes and LinkedIn profile URLs for the women you’re working to empower (with their permission, of course). The power of this is two-fold: first, you will have easy access to shareable information when you do run into someone who seems like a good bet for an empowering connection. Second, the amount of support and encouragement the offer itself can cultivate in young women helps them to be braver in their own networking.
Give It Time
Nothing worth doing was ever effortless. Think how much time and energy you have put into getting where you are right now: countless years, hundreds of connections, hours upon hours of brain-wracking work. Trying new tactics, failing sometimes and trying again. It is important to be there for your fellow businesswomen. Collaboration comes in many forms, and support in the hard, dark hours is absolutely priceless.
We have opportunities every day to support, collaborate and encourage each other — both for women who are fighting up those first few steps, and for women who are on the (proverbial or actual) top floor. Spread positivity and dedication wherever you can, and do not be afraid to ask when you need a little encouragement too.