Wonder Woman at Work: The Mixed Messages Society Tells Young Women

by Lee Desser

On my winding bus ride to work, I often stare out the window and tune into podcasts. This morning I was listening to the TED Radio Hour featuring a session called, “Disruptive Leadership,” in which Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, discusses the lack of women holding leadership roles in companies. Sheryl is well-known for her bestselling book Lean In, which encourages women to step up into senior leadership roles. She discusses the gender bias experienced by women and how girls avoid positions of power in order to avoid being called bossy. The b word.

This brought me back to 2013. At the time I had just finished my master’s in postsecondary administration and was temping at a large, public, research institution. Full disclosure: I was having a really tough time living in one of the most expensive areas of the United States without job security. My goal was to land a full-time position in academic advising or career services. I had been getting called for interviews, but that “permanent” position evaded me. Was it the lack of experience? I had gone straight from college to graduate school. Could it be my age? In meetings with graduate advisers on campus I was the youngest one in the room by at least 10 years. Or maybe—perhaps most disheartening of all—was it me, my personality, my disposition? I wanted feedback. I needed it.

That day eventually came. A director on campus who had been part of a hiring committee for a position for which I had just interviewed was kind and courageous enough to provide me with some honest input. She sat me down in her office and had a few suggestions. Thanks to the rise of long-term e-mail storage and my obsessive cataloging, I wrote her ideas down: “Present an advising example or challenge with a mutually beneficial solution,” she said. “That seems like a no brainer! I can do that,” I thought. “Think deeper about examples and expand.” Will do. Check! Then came the suggestion that haunts me to this day and perhaps speaks to what I considered, at the time, a failure not only in terms of the interview, but of my womanhood: “Present a more welcoming, nurturing side.” Ooh burn.

I remember I cried in her office that day and, as appreciative as I was of the feedback, it hurt really badly. I felt like I had been told all my life that women need to step it up, have to be assertive to get what they want. And then I did that and this happens. For years afterwards, I worked on “lightening up,” “softening” and through facing some challenging times, I think—at least in some ways—it worked.

When I heard Facebook’s Sandberg say that girls don’t want to be called bossy and that they are encouraged to put their hands down, to let boys lead, I remembered this conversation I had with the director. Have I been wasting all this time lightening up when I should have been stepping it up? Sandberg seems to think so.

I realize now that, rather than hearing her feedback as an acknowledgement of my own personal failings as a woman, I should have instead considered alternate opportunities. Why was I so quick to become deeply self-conscious at one suggestion by one well-meaning professional? These mixed messages for women to both assert themselves and also nurture others are confusing and difficult to navigate and yet, happen all of the time. How assertive is too assertive in higher education? What about in student affairs? Is it different? 

Lee Desser

Lee Desser, Career Advisor, University of California, San Diego
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

4 thoughts on “Wonder Woman at Work: The Mixed Messages Society Tells Young Women

  1. This is a thoughtfully reflective essay, Lee. Much research has found that women can’t be both “competent” and “likeable.” What a shame. I hope that your generation of women fixes that! In the meantime, please remember that just because someone makes an observation about us does not mean it is correct regardless of how well-meaning it was and also that we sometimes do misinterpret the message – often in the negative. As to your question, perhaps the answer is not so much in a measurement of “assertiveness” as to the ability to stand in possession of ourselves so that others perceive us for who we are and, therefore, what we are capable of accomplishing.

  2. Brave post! What surprises me is that this still happens, this mixed messaging. It’s been true since the 70’s when I was a teenager. Be assertive, but not too assertive. Be nurturing but not a pushover and doormat. I take comfort in that it’s just as mixed for men these days as well. Emotional Intelligence as a popular concept is finally helping bring “soft skills” and empathy into vogue for everyone, especially leaders. Student Affairs IS different. It’s the kinder, gentler version of higher education (usually), which is typically “nicer” than many corporate settings (but not always). So, to be caring, empathetic and flexible is a greater expectation. I still see, however, that it’s difficult to be noticed or heard if you don’t strike the right balance.

    As for “How assertive is too assertive in higher education?” is a great question and a challenge to answer. I’ve found it varies from institution to institution, but I hope there are a few studies out there on this topic! Landing your first professional job is different than if you set your sights on moving up in the future. If you want to be a leader and decision maker, you can’t avoid making some people uncomfortable. I’ve found that HOW you say things is critical for women in particular (as unfair as that may be). Staying positive and seeing the good in others has been the most helpful strategy. Not to be a Pollyanna (does anyone but me use that reference anymore?) but it helps in getting where you want to go. It’s OK to be strategic, confident, assertive AND caring at the same time.

  3. What I read in your article is basically this question: What is it to be a woman in the workplace today? How is it that we lead as women? As a 50-something myself, I can only say that navigating what it is to be a woman in the workplace is somewhat undefined yet so many have unexpressed expectations (while holding you accountable to them).

    I think the key is not to allow others to define those expectations, or else we’ll never get ahead of that message. I would focus on confidence and integrity. Know your communications style and focus on your strengths. Your womanliness will shine through just being you. For example, if you are naturally caring and nurturing (a shepherding style of communicator), that will come through all on its own. Not that we can’t work on areas becoming more rounded, developing more empathy or other soft skills for greater mindfulness, but I wouldn’t sweat it so much. Be you. You are a woman.

  4. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses and feedback!

    Catherine–I hope my generation fixes it, as well! One thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be an expectation that women in entry-level positions should be nurturing, kind, and subservient, while women in positions of leadership need to speak their mind and maybe ruffle some feathers. Can these be the same person?

    Diane–Your comment about how this applies to men as well reminds me of the firing of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick. In part, he was so successful at expanding Uber into other countries because he didn’t follow the rules. Yet, when it came to issues to sexual harassment, he could not take a softer approach and find ways to improve the hostile company culture. The same quality (aggressiveness, rule-breaking) that helped him succeed led to his firing.

    Catroy210–Absolutely agree. One of my very best supervisors was able to lead in a caring and nurturing way and it created a tremendous company culture. There are different ways of leading and that’s OK.

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