by Jennifer Gilhool - Gender Economics Lab —
No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the feeling that washed over me when I heard those words “not sufficiently charming.” While I am not entirely sure how, I did manage to contain the flood of emotions that surged through me as I tried – unsuccessfully – to process the meaning of those three words. There was no yelling, no pounding of the desk or throwing of the computer, phone, or any other object sitting on my desk. Not a single tear was shed. At least, not at that exact moment.
There would be much yelling, throwing, and crying in the hours, days, weeks and months to follow. Instinctively, I knew all of “that” had to wait. It has been over three years since I first heard those words come over the speakerphone from somewhere in the United States to me in China. But, the feelings and the insecurity borne from those words are as fresh and new as the air I breathe each day.
Because the criticism was personal. Because the criticism attacked my competency as a woman and not as a professional. Because the criticism was designed to hurt me rather than build my performance capability. It wasn’t business; it was personal. Very personal.
This is what “Lean In” and all of the other career advice books for women don’t tell you. Business is personal for women. Not because women take business personally but because women must navigate a business world that is steeped in a culture that is male, specifically white male. This isn’t a criticism or an indictment of men either. It is quite simply a fact of business.
The dominant group determines culture. The dominant group in business for centuries has been white and male, at least in North America and Europe. Consequently, the standards of performance, the rituals of communication and bonding, the organizational structure and the manner of feedback are all steeped in the culture of men. For men, business is just business. This is not true for women.
Business is personal for women because women must not only prove themselves as competent professionals but also as competent women and the standards for each are almost diametrically opposed. Just before I was told that I was not sufficiently charming, I was also told that I had exceeded each of the business goals set for the organization that I led. As a professional, I was not simply competent but exceptional. As a woman, however, I was distinctly incompetent.
In fairness, someone suggested that I “turn on the charm” a year earlier. This person was my then boss, a 40-year veteran of the industry and a woman. Indeed, just one of two female corporate officers at my Fortune 50 company. I considered the advice and dismissed it. I wasn’t going to “turn on the charm” to make some man feel more comfortable or to advance my own standing. No one was asking the CFO to be more charming. No one was even asking him to be more humane.
My charm quotient ultimately determined the fate of my career with this company. After I left, I noticed the stories of other women whose charm quotient factored heavily in their own career fates. Women like Jill Abramson, WHO ELSE? I decided that I was in very good company. And, yet, I could not shake the insecurity and shadow of failure.
It was unfair but that wasn’t the reason these feelings were clinging to me. It was that the comment was wholly unnecessary. It was intentional. It was delivered and intended as a personal attack. There was no discussion about autocratic style or a concern over team building capability. Indeed, no such conversation could take place because I was the only leader in the entire Asia Pacific & Africa region who built a team from scratch using local-national talent rather than expat talent. The only way to attack my leadership style was, in fact, to attack my womanhood.
Men just don’t face this conundrum: to soften their hard edges by seducing their subordinates, colleagues, and managers. Men may choose to “turn on the charm” but charm isn’t a job requirement. There is no charm standard against which a man is measured, evaluated and expected to perform. Charm is a standard that exists for women – it is on the other side of the tightrope that women must walk while trying to be both a leader and a woman.
Being un-charming is not something that would ordinarily bother me. But, identity is contextual. In the context of my performance review, I was keenly aware of my gender. I was the only woman on the leadership team for my global function. I was the only woman with revenue-generating responsibility in Asia Pacific & Africa. I was isolated by my gender. I was keenly aware of my gender and that my performance would reflect not only on me but also on all of the women within my function striving to rise to my level. I knew that if I was judged to be less competent than my male peers, my failure could and likely would forestall the advancement of women in this company.
I wasn’t wrong. A man replaced me in China. A man who delayed his move to China until his children completed the school year. I, however, was forced to leave my children and husband behind in China while I returned to the States to a position that didn’t really exist and was designed to force me out. And, this was a negotiated gift. A gift that likely would not have been received if it weren’t for a man who happened to be CEO of the region with two daughters in college. Identity is contextual. He saw what was happening and feared for his own daughters.
Fortunately, I knew that I was leaving this company when I took the assignment in China and that decision was reinforced the minute I heard those three words: not sufficiently charming. After China, there was nowhere for me to go – no new challenge to conquer. I was already bored and boredom is a dangerous thing for a person like me. While I don’t regret my decisions, I remain haunted by the feelings associated with that moment in my career. It drives me. It drives me to change the culture so that my own daughters’ accomplishments are never rendered insignificant because someone judged them to be “not sufficiently charming.”
Jennifer Gilhool is the founder of Gender Economics Lab, a professional, focused thought leading coaching and consulting practice that cuts through popular myths about gender in the workplace. GEL distinguishes its solutions by assuring both male and female workers that smart gender literacy rewards participants with career growth and rewards companies with higher margins. GEL goes far beyond compliance issues to deliver business value for all stakeholders. Learn more at www.gendereconomicslab.com