Losing the Fear of Being Stereotyped: Surviving as a Young Woman in a Position of Authority

Losing the Fear of Being Stereotyped: Surviving as a Young Woman in a Position of AuthorityPlease welcome our guest writer this week to discuss an issue than many women in positions of power in the workplace can experience – a fear of being stereotyped in a certain way.

“You need to look and sound intimidating and scary.” That was one of the most popular versions of advice I received when I accepted a position of authority as lead litigation counsel at a law firm at 26 years old.

I looked in the mirror and thought, am I even capable of looking scary? Standing at 5’2″, with a wide smile, dimples, and a high pitched voice that can sound like a 12 year old on the telephone, it didn’t seem promising. It appeared as if society’s notion was that a woman had to look like they expect and deserve to be heard and respected. I always thought, or hoped anyway, that respect was just an inherent inclination for all humans regardless of gender.

I quickly realized, as a young woman, it didn’t matter what I said, especially when I was surrounded by male attorneys. If I ventured into traditional male territory, I was quickly criticized. If I cursed, I was labeled “unprofessional,” but the older male down the hall that cursed was labeled “cool.” If I was assertive, there were whispers that I was aggressive and bitchy, but the older male was effective. If I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and could riddle off laws perfectly from memory, the males clapped like it was an impressive surprise rather than a hard-working skill. However, the older male who could do just the same was brilliant. I was ultimately afraid that I would never get anyone to listen to me or take me seriously.

After countless nights of dwelling and lack of sleep, I decided that I would not allow myself to feel powerless in a position of authority. I knew what the stereotypes were, and instead of letting them drown me, I had to take steps to remedy them. I told myself that it was okay to be myself and create my own type of power and authority. It’s not about being tough, aggressive, strong, or in control. It’s about the qualities that make me strong – my ability to teach, to listen, and to be kind. I’ve been in positions of authority for a couple of years now, and I would give any young female in a new position of power the five following pieces of advice.

1. Work on Finding your Own Identity as a Leader, not Society’s Notions of what a Leader should be

Finding your sense of identity as a leader may be difficult because you also must establish credibility in a culture that is conflicted about whether, when and how women should exercise authority. Those who equate leadership with behaviors considered more common in men suggest that women are simply not cut out to be leaders. Do not accept this notion. Your leadership can show in many different ways. Leadership can be seen in how much you care about a client, or being responsive to your client needs, rather than aggressively asserting a point of view. It takes a powerful woman to realize that, more often than not, power comes in many different forms.

I learned to improve as an effective leader by developing a sense of purpose. I did this by pursuing goals that align with my personal values and advance the collective good. Pursuing your own goals that coincide with your beliefs will allow you to look beyond the stereotypes to what is possible, and will give you a compelling reason to take action despite any personal insecurities you may face. Connect others to a larger purpose – if you do this, you’ll truly inspire and come off as a tremendous leader, despite how others may view you just because of your gender.

2. Educate yourself on Gender Bias and Second-Generation Bias

Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination. Some women have a tendency to think, “Well, I got the job, so they must respect women and treat them equally to men.” Take it from me, gender bias does not require an intent to exclude, and nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Beware of being in a situation or environment that makes you feel like you cannot reach your full potential. Some examples of this may include feeling less connected to your male colleagues, being advised to work less or different hours to accommodate family, or finding yourself excluded from consideration for even higher positions or obligations. Once you realize the subtle and negative effects of this second-generation bias, you will feel empowered and not victimized.

3. Don’t Try to make yourself “Look Older” or Different

Society puts pressure on women in positions of power to look the part – to look older, to look intimidating, or to look stern. If you try to make yourself look older or tell yourself you need to, you’re just feeding into the stereotype. It’s not about what you look like. Rather, it’s about how you carry yourself and how you lead. Do not get bogged down in the physical details, because as it happened to me, it will inhibit your ability to see yourself as something you are, and inhibit your ability to thrive in your leadership role.

4. Don’t Accept Typical Sexist Jokes and Comments – They’re Still not Okay (and never will be)

When males, or even other females, make sexist jokes, do not give in and laugh or act passively toward that behavior. Stand up to it. Don’t allow your workplace or your environment to contain that kind of energy. Be the positive and assertive force that changes your workplace dynamic.

5. Find a Strong Female Leader Role Model

My role model was a probate court judge I clerked for throughout law school. She not only taught me about how difficult it was being a young female attorney, but she also taught me how difficult it could be being in a position of power as a female. A role model can teach you about gender bias and how to combat it.

I don’t view myself as a victim to society – I view myself as a survivor of it. I learned that it was never about making myself appear fearful. It was about discarding my own fears. Young women need to acquire their own inherent power and not merely associate with or find ways to please those who have it. Don’t be fearful of the stereotypes but remedy them.

So, every day, before I go to work, I look in the mirror at the 5’2″, cutesy face staring before me and think, I might not be intimidating or scary, but I’m more than capable of doing my job, and today I’m going to show everyone how it’s done. Let this be a popular version of advice you hear: you all have power in being yourself, so do just that – be yourself.


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