I’ll admit that I’ve whined a bit on this blog about the small scale on which my life seems to be measured. Most notably, after a visit to Southern California success town. Sometimes, I let myself wallow in “how did I get here” thoughts rather than actually looking back and assessing how I actually got here. They’ve all been choices. They’ve all been MY choices. And when I actually do retrace my steps, I find some solid decision making skills co-mingling with hesitation and self-doubt.
For Christmas, I asked for Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In (yes, I ask for books for Christmas) and the first night I cracked it open, I knew I had found something special. In the first chapter, she pretty much pointed her finger at me and said, “This book is about you.” It led to a lot of underlining and note taking and trying to share passages out loud with Mr. Rathroy (much to his delight as I’m sure you can imagine). And it has since led to many a deep thought on the paths that I’ve chosen in the past and which ones I’d like to take in the future.
For lots of reasons, this book has spoken to me. From making (or more likely abstaining from) career moves based on future potential children, to taking on socially prescribed gender roles, to selling myself short, this book points out all too common and overlooked obstacles that women face when deciding who they will become in the world.
When I was in elementary school, a caricature artist came to our school to draw us as our future selves. Basically, an exercise in the “who do you want to be when you grow up” department. And because, for as long as I could remember, I either wanted to be a marine biologist or a military pilot, I had him draw me as a high powered military leader giving a speech in my dress blues. I’m pretty sure the President was drawn into the audience. That was my goal when I was 10 – back when I competed with the smartest boy in class for fastest timed math tests (it got pretty heated), when I ran and won a campaign for Student Council President, back when “bossy” wasn’t in my vocabulary.
Since that caricature, I’ve gone through a series of personality variations that included apathetic, manipulative, doormat, and am finally circling back around to extrovert. I don’t know of a specific moment where things in my mind turned from ambition to unattainable, but over time I fell in line with what I thought was conventional female behavior. I became passive, kept my head down, did what was asked of me, and focused a lot on how I was perceived.
Sandberg captured this movement away from myself in various passages:
“Young women internalize social cues about what defines ‘appropriate’ behavior and, in turn, silence themselves.”*
“In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.” *
I couldn’t count the number of my homework assignments that I let a boy copy. Or the number of group projects that I completed but allowed a boy to present to the class. In college one time, I even wrote two separate papers for one assignment – one for me and one for my boyfriend at the time. His got an A. The one I turned it got a B+. This was the doormat phase and it lasted for a long time.
“While compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace. Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself – traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting.”*
I spent the first 4 years of my professional life trying to stay afloat in a department of all men. I never spoke at meetings until the round table updates came to me, and when my update began, so did their side conversations about chewing tobacco and duck hunting. I was directly told that my salary was the lowest in the organization ($12,000 lower than my male boss that I replaced). And yet I spent years thanking my lucky stars for that job and willingly withdrawing my voice for fear that it would jeopardize anything.
As I continue down my professional path, considering gender roles, potential future children, and all other factors that play into career moves, I’m emboldened by my younger self. The girl that didn’t think about the social or family factors that would affect the high profile military career of a female 4-star General. The girl that quite effectively marketed herself up and down her school into the top student leadership position. The girl that won writing competitions and worked to beat boys at being the smartest in class. The girl that was unaware that “bossy” was a hurtful stigma.
I think I still have that elementary school caricature buried in my childhood closet somewhere. That rendering of future Kelly represented more than my childhood career goals – it portrayed my personality and some of my greatest strengths before I was made aware that those strengths might be unladylike. My plans for military greatness may have changed over the years, but my 10 year old gut feelings about what I would be really good at in life haven’t. I can lead. I can be a boss. I can do more than be assigned tasks by other people. And thanks to Sheryl Sandberg, the support of Mr. Rathroy, and my parents that have always known what a boss I am (and never discouraged it), I feel like I’m finally ready to shake that doormat phase for good.
Big moves are being made. And I can’t wait to finally jump into the game with my boss face on.
*Please don’t put me in jail for plagiarism. These are passages from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. I haven’t written a real reference since college and frankly, I’ve completely forgotten how.