LEADERSHIP / FEB. 01, 2015
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How to Be a Strong Woman in Business

Back in the early 1990s, I started working at a company that defined “old boys’ network.” Being fresh out of college and as green as they come, along with working in a male-dominated environment, I made a lot of mistakes. I also learned a lot of incredibly valuable lessons. Written from experience, here are my words of advice on being a strong woman in business.

Shed the victim mindset

Seeing yourself as a victim is the worst thing you can possibly do. And I’m not talking about overt discrimination. I’m talking about a victim mindset. If you’re convinced that you’ll never be able to advance because you’re a woman, you’re not only setting yourself up to fail, you’re taking the easy way out. Even if it’s true – even if women really do have a harder time getting ahead in your business – feeling like a victim lets you blame your failures on other people (or the situation in general) rather than taking responsibility. It’s a cop-out. Strong women take responsibility for themselves, their feelings, their actions, and their successes and failures. They see themselves as holding just as much power as anyone else, so it would never occur to them to assume someone else’s actions are keeping them down.

Don’t be a pushover

Whether it’s part of our DNA or something taught by our culture, a lot of women feel the need to “be nice.” And there’s nothing wrong with being nice as long as you don’t take it so far that you become a pushover (see the previous paragraph). Absolutely use respect and good manners – brusque women tend to have just as hard of a time as wimpy women – but don’t hesitate to speak up when that’s what’s required. If a male employee who’s several years older than you isn’t getting his work done, you absolutely have to address it. The key – other than being respectful – is to have the attitude that you absolutely, without a doubt, have the authority and ability to do it. No one will take you seriously if you sound like you’re asking a favor. If you don’t feel confident, fake it until you do.

Develop an intimate relationship with facts

One lingering stereotype about women is that we’re too emotional. I’m not suggesting you become robotic once you’re in the office, but I do recommend that you base your decisions on facts, that you explain them based on facts, etc. “I think (never, ever say “I feel”) that commodity prices are going to rise next year,” is far less powerful than saying, “The Wall Street Journal, in their January 9 issue, predicted that commodity prices will rise throughout 2015.”

Get that chip off of your shoulder

This one is closely tied to feeling like a victim. Don’t start a new job expecting inequities. If you do, you’ll over react to little things. My maiden name was Wigley, and I once had a boss tell me that I should change the first letter of my last name to “J”. (Get it?) Was that inappropriate? Incredibly so. Did I have grounds to complain? Yep. But I didn’t. It was a one-time thing, no harm was done, and I just decided I’d rather combat the stereotypes by kicking ass in my job than by running to HR. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating that anyone should have to put up with physical harassment or verbal harassment that is so upsetting that it affects their quality of life. I’m just suggesting that you stop and think for a minute. Are you really traumatized, or are you just conditioned to think that you should report anything that’s the least bit un-PC? If it’s the latter, go back to work.

To be a strong woman in business, you have to believe you’re a strong woman in business. If you don’t have that confidence yet, fake it until you do. Just be sure that you’re playing the role of a strong woman rather than a woman who wishes she were strong – that can come across as too strident and aggressive. It really comes down to attitude.

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