Letting Women Be Themselves at Work

Kim Ratcliff discusses the standards many women are held to in the workplace and how everyone can overcome these age-old expectations and bring their true self to work.
Photo by Jopwell from Pexels
Photo by Jopwell from Pexels

Reading a recent opinion piece by one of my favorite actors, Nicola Coughlan, got me thinking about a great topic ahead of International Women's Day:

Why do we have to be likable, attractive, smiling, nurturing or otherwise traditionally "womanly" at work?

"Put On Some Lipstick"

I started working in a professional setting during the early 1990s, and I've been fortunate to learn in the midst of amazing women leaders. Even so, there have always been two different behavioral standards for women and men at work.

It's more acceptable for men to be curmudgeons, scruffy, serious, and/or not always likable.

For women, being any of these things makes us some combination of:

  • Unapproachable
  • Shrill
  • Unkempt
  • "Needs to smile more."
  • "Should wear makeup that makes her eyes pop."
  • "Please wear lipstick."
  • Difficult

True story: I've heard all of these things said about me or other women, by men as well as by other women. And yes, it's ridiculous.

After 25+ years of experiencing first-hand this expectation, I have to say that it is getting better. And yet, we are not all the way there yet.

Zoom It Up (Or Not)

The era of Zoom to Zoom all day long isn't helping. To communicate enthusiasm and interest during calls, it's critical to use facial expressions and gestures that show we care.

This generally means more smiling, extra effort to keep the conversation going, and enhanced high-energy gestures with quick pacing. All of which can fall squarely into stereotypically "cheerleader" modes of expression.

I'll admit that I struggle with this. Working from home, by myself, sometimes I don't feel as pumped up as I'd like to be.

Sometimes, getting more energy ahead of a client call is just as helpful for me as it is for building a client relationship. And some days it's hard to bring it, and stay true to myself.

Smile As I Choose

I'm working to share my real self at work. With and without makeup, 53 years old and unapologetically looking it, candid, and pushing harder to understand when conversations can feel difficult (and not assuming that it's me being difficult). Importantly, it has been a challenge, but I'm consciously trying to lean into more facial expressions beyond smiling to communicate the vast array of human emotions that I have at my disposal to express.

Spoiler alert: I smile a lot naturally, and I'm not changing this about my authentic self. But there's a lot more depth there. And sometimes in meetings, it is appropriate to have a serious "because I am thinking" expression on my face.

To celebrate the accomplishments of myself and other women at work, I'm focusing on what we bring to the table, as our real selves. Not always likable--and proud to bring our whole beings to change the world. Whether or not we choose to smile and/or wear lipstick.