Professional Women: Are You Unwittingly Sabotaging Your Own Success?

Author’s note: This article is adapted from my book, Network Beyond Bias.

This post focuses on professional women. Most articles I’ve read on this topic show that these behaviors are disproportionately displayed by women. They also have a disproportionate impact on women’s careers, both individually and collectively. I recognize that men may also be affected. This post does not seek to minimize the experiences or importance of men in the workplace. Rather, it seeks to raise us all up to our full potential.

Professional Women: Don’t Undercut Your Own Value

This Business Insider article outlines 12 career-limiting habits that women disproportionately exhibit in the workplace. There were several of these that stood out to me as common problems, or things I’ve caught myself and others doing in my own career.

One point surprised me as being the hallmark of professional women: waiting until we’re experts before taking on a new role.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a former [male] colleague who had taken a huge career risk within my company. He took a significant demotion so he could get exposure in areas completely outside his experience and comfort zone. I literally gasped! How did he know he could be successful if he changed businesses, business functions, roles, and geographic scope – ALL AT THE SAME TIME?!? The question I actually asked was “How did you become so fearless?”

Confessions of a Professional Woman

I used to take an 80/20 approach to job changes. If the new job was 80% stuff I knew how to do and 20% stuff I need to learn, then it was probably a good (read: safe) opportunity for me. I’ve even coached other professional women to take this approach, when they’ve come to me wondering if they should take a chance in their own careers. I remember several of them nodding and saying, “that seems like a safe approach.” And if it gave them the courage to try something new, then I’m glad I was able to give them a boost.

I only wish I’d taken a broader, transferable-skills view for myself and for those who sought my counsel. My new goal is to take a 50/50 approach using the same criteria above. Eventually, I may get to 20/80, taking my cue from the most daring men I know. I will encourage other professional women to do the same.

More Suggestions for Improving Your Standing

I’d like to add two more behaviors to the list of DON’Ts for professional women:

  1. Telling people what you don’t know before telling them what you do know. 

I’ve noticed that in meetings, women tend to contribute to the discussion by saying, “I don’t know much about …., but….” or by starting with “This is probably a stupid question, but…” Please, please, please, don’t tell people you’re stupid.

Instead, consider why you were invited to the meeting in the first place. What perspective do you offer that no one else brings to the table? If you MUST couch your comment or question in context, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself — and others — of your value to the group.

For example, “In my experience with X, I learned … I see some similarities to this situation that I think are worth discussing,” or “I have the benefit of looking at this with a fresh perspective, so can you explain why X is so important?”

  1. Using “uptalk” to make yourself sound less threatening

Uptalk is my least favorite cultural phenomenon of late. Uptalk is the vocal intonation used by English-speakers to indicate that a sentence is a question. However, it has become more and more common for women to use uptalk for declarative statements as well, which results in us sounding less confident and less knowledgeable.

In fact, the more knowledgeable women are, the more likely they are to use uptalk to appear less threatening or less assertive. There is science to back this up. A William & Mary sociologist studied contestant responses on Jeopardy! The study showed that as women were more successful on the show, they were more likely to use uptalk. The opposite was true of male contestants. Here’s a 90-second video and an article on this research.

I recently read the autobiography of a transgender woman. Boyle writes that once she started living as a woman, she started using uptalk more often. Even when she introduced herself, she heard herself say, “My name is Jennifer?”

Professional women must stop ourselves and others from questioning everything we say as it’s coming out of our mouths!

Moving Forward Together

I encourage both professional women and the men who support them to read the article. Hold each other accountable for risk-taking and career success. Use specific constructive feedback to redirect limiting behaviors. Use specific positive feedback to reinforce effective ones.

Managers, please coach the women on your teams so they are not artificially limiting their own success. Understand your own biases and take steps to overcome them. Let’s all work to ensure that we’re treating ourselves with the same level of respect that we expect from others!

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