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The Feminine Mystique--Being a Woman at the Office

A few years ago a professional photographer friend of mine captured this portrait in her studio. Some people say it’s warm and bright, others cold and aloof.

Yes, the photographer was using professional lighting. But she captured a side of me that rarely comes out at work. Editing what comes out--or is hidden--at work is pretty normal. Whether that’s healthy or not is a huge debate that I’ll save for another time. What surprised me is that she captured a side of me -- my “serious” side, if you will -- that I’d like to bring to work more often.

Women are frequently perceived as selfish when we’re focused. And sometimes we’re perceived as standoffish when we don’t accommodate others’ preferences. To be clear, this isn’t just by men -- but also by women and gender non-binary people as well. Even women who set boundaries with other women are sometimes perceived as being standoffish.

On the other hand, women are accused of “giving” time away or that pay discrepancies are self-inflicted because we’re too nice--And more so for women of color who are perceived as extra disagreeable when setting boundaries.

This classic “double bind” as psychologists say, is used frequently by insecure parents or lovers who are -- often unintentionally -- trying to control their children or partner rather than to self-soothe. Some bosses aren’t so different.

The parent might say when you’re busy: “you never write, you never call.”

And when you’re free: “you really should apply yourself more.”

The boss might say when you’re busy that they need to monitor what you’re doing, though certainly, the verbiage might be a little different: status updates or more reporting, not because it’ll help with team functionality, but because they must be informed at all times.

Maybe we can call this Panopticon for Paycheck!

And, conversely, if there’s a lull between projects, you might get a request to justify your existence.

We like to think that emotional responses at the office are somehow different than with family or friends. But it turns out that our egos, emotions, and insecurities are just as strong. Still, in Western culture we’re mostly operating under the pretense that we’re being logical and steady. But it turns out there isn’t much research to corroborate that. No, not even at work.

And there’s plenty of research to show that we’re being highly emotional in day-to-day office happenings. Just because we’re speaking with a straight face doesn’t mean we’re operating logically.

This is great news! It means there’s plenty of room for liberation--freedom from outdated management techniques about monitoring our teams and freedom from judging others based on social norms. And plenty of room to be highly agile, relational, curious, and appreciative.

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