4 ways for women, and all humans, to navigate bias and insecurity at work

February 4, 2019
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All the credentials in the world won’t protect you from a biased colleague, structural inequity, or self-doubt. Systemic -- and internalized -- oppression is slow to change. While we wait, and agitate, for humans to inch closer to justice, we can also learn strategies to navigate the professional obstacles bred by bias and exclusivity.

Common challenges: Imposter syndrome and cultural conditioning

Imposter syndrome is a familiar feeling among women and minority populations. Some have received explicit and implicit messages that they aren’t welcome and/or aren’t good enough.

“No matter what minority group you belong to -- women, people of color, trans or nonbinary people -- when you don’t see people who look like you in positions of power, you can feel like you don’t belong [in a leadership role],” said Ewa Nowicki, Chair of AACRAO’s recently formed Women’s Caucus. “You may not feel like you have a right to hold space when you’re surrounded by images of folks who don’t look like you.”

In addition, women are typically socialized to lead in ways that may make their leadership less visible in institutions used to rewarding masculine leadership styles.

“Often, women share or defer accolades, or don’t speak up in big meetings,”  said Bianca Thompson, Vice Chair of the caucus. “Then when it’s time to ask for a raise, you may not be drawing attention to yourself, but eager to share the glory. It’s important to acknowledge your own contribution and accomplishments.”

That silencing or disempowering of women and the feminine may also contribute to the actual silencing of women’s voices.

“I frequently see women making points in meetings, and the leadership glosses over those points until another person echos it,” said Erin Mason, caucus Secretary.

Leadership -- both men and women in power -- need to listen for those voices and help to amplify them.

Tools for navigating these challenges

Over time, disempowered people have developed a variety of tools for working and thriving in disadvantageous environments. In an AACRAO 2019 Annual Meeting session (details below), the caucus leadership team will explore common career hindrances women face and discuss strategies for coping with them. A few are mentioned below.

  1. Prepare and publicize. “Be prepared with a clear snapshot of your professional accomplishments,” recommended Thompson. “If you ever feel put on the spot or facing a golden opportunity, you’ll have your 30-second pitch ready. And remember that it’s O.K. to acknowledge and celebrate your personal and professional accomplishments.”

  2. Shift your narrative. An executive presence is something that can be cultivated and developed over time. Your inner voice is the first place to start. “Daily affirmations can be incredibly powerful,” Thompson said. “I am good enough. I am enough. I am well prepared. I’ve done this before.”

    “Research supports that power of narrative and storytelling,” Mason said. “Don’t believe everything you think. Separate that self-doubt from the self-knowing of all that you’ve done and achieved to get here.” [Here's a great resource on the power of personal narratives.]
  3. Self-care. It’s a cliche because it’s true. Self-care is so important, especially for people who have been socialized to put others’ needs first. Take a walk, meditate, crochet. First, learn to listen to that inner voice that tells you what you really need right now. Then do what you need to do to get yourself right.

    “I take a ‘vacation’ every day,” Mason said. For her, it may be a 15 minute walk to clear her head. Whenever possible, she recommended, take at least 15 minutes a day to cultivate that vacation feeling -- let go of responsibilities, be in your body, and relax.
  4. Community. “Connect with other women in similar situations,” Thompson said. “For example, if you’re pursuing an advanced degree, connect with a mentor, connect with women in study groups or writing sessions to uplift and support each other.”

    In addition, build up other women and others who are disempowered. “Realize that we all have privilege and bias that comes into our personality and workplace,” Nowicki said. “We should be aware and lifting up others while we advocate for ourselves.” And, when you’re at a loss with whom to connect to, visualize a powerful woman in the audience, educated and poised, cheering you on. Nowicki’s choice is Michelle Obama. 

To broaden your community, consider joining the Women’s Caucus. 

More resources
Learn more at the Feb. 20 webinar "Introducing the Women's Caucus." Join this live, free webinar to discuss the objectives for the caucus as well as ways to get involved with AACRAO at the national and stage/regional level. The webinar is led by Thompson, Meridith Braz (Dartmouth College), and Susan Hamilton (Rutgers).

Discover AACRAO 2019 sessions. 
Join Nowicki, Thompson, Mason, Laura Remillard (Stanford University), and Margo Landy (University of the Pacific) at these focused Annual Meeting sessions "Breaking Down the Bias Barrier: Developing Leadership Skills for Women and "Women Leaders: Navigating the challenges of impostor syndrome, bias, and other career pitfalls."

Nowicki, Thompson, and Mason also shared the following resources which have inspired them:
- The Women at Work podcast from Harvard Business Review. 
- An article regarding why women stay out of the spotlight.
- The American Association of University Women is a good resource for research on gender equity and scholarships for further education. They also have a free e-course on salary negotiations.
- The Harvard Graduate School of Education Women in Education Leadership workshop. 
- NASPA's Center for Women and women’s leadership conference.
- Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life, a book by Michelle Gadsden Williams