Being Yourself at Work: Avoiding Stereotypes and Building a Solid Strategic Network

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, CEO and Publisher of The Glass Hammer

Members of The Glass Hammer community will know that we hold extremely targeted and specific networking events with panel discussions (and articles) that tackle the toughest topics around career management for women in financial and professional services. This year will be no different as we thunder into 2012 with eight events lined up. We aim to encourage you to be well-equipped to succeed in the world of work and we hope to inform, inspire, and empower you every step of the journey.

We are hosting our first 2012 event on the 6th of February, which is part of our “Managing Identities at Work” series. This pioneering event addresses what it means to be an LGBT woman at work in the financial markets and professional services, and will be held here in NY in February and then in London in June. We will be also exploring what it means to be a multicultural women in the industry in New York in October. This work is an extension of our efforts over the past five years, including discussions and whitepapers around Women in Technology, Senior Women in Investment Management, and other issues like how women negotiate differently than men.

You might ask what are we talking about when we ask our readers to think about managing their “identity.” Most of us don’t get out of bed in the morning and think about ourselves in that way. Personal or social identity, and how we manage it, is not to be confused with personal branding. We have control over how we market ourselves. Managing our identities is different – but critical for success.

Managing Identities

Our “Managing Your Identity at Work” series is about recognizing differences in yourself and others to build better and honest working relationships with your coworkers, bosses, and clients. (This is different from “life-coach” style “being your authentic self” guidelines, which, when misconstrued, can mislead employees fully disclosing activities that don’t necessarily belong in the workplace… and encourage those of us with bold personalities to let rip with stories of our weekend adventures in intricate detail.)

Instead, we are referring to overcoming stereotype threat – and stereotyping is something that we all do (admit it!). Our brains are wired to take in information and organize it a way that makes it easier to analyze quickly. In the workplace, women have to think about how they are perceived in a much more deliberate way than men, since men belong to the group that has always “gone to the office.” As a women, you are likely already dealing with the 1st set of assumptions (which come come from both men AND women) about who you are, how you think, and what you are good at.

Then you may have one or more other outward identities such as being a different ethnicity other than white or a different nationality from the rest of the group (which means a 2nd or 3rd set of assumptions around who you are, what you are good at that you must contend with). Then you have to navigate your path in a way that enables coworkers understand you and your abilities clearly.

Sound familiar? Of course, sometimes it’s hardly noticeable. But other times the onus is on you to educate peers and bosses as you may represent a whole host of misconceptions to them.

For example, if you happen to be LGBT, you have to then experience some level of anxiety around dealing with another set of assumptions that people might have about you. Going back to our upcoming event, our purpose is to help LGBT women leverage all types of networks, find mentors and sponsors, and understand how to connect with senior people in the firm to advance without feeling the need to live with anxiety and hide their personal lives – for instance, by using neutral pronouns when talking about their significant other.

Why it Matters for Change Agents

Being yourself and knowing who are is a crucial part of being a change agent.

Many women say to me that being a woman hasn’t mattered in their career. Those women upon closer inspection have often assimilated to the dominant group’s leadership style.

But women aren’t men and so by trying to take on certain characteristics, they often create a lose/lose situation in which are often ranked as less popular bosses. And by denying that they may have been perceived as “different” at various points in their career, they often forfeit the opportunity to be a good mentor and sponsor to younger women and men.

This analogy can be applied to LGBT employees who feel they have to stay in the closet at work – particularly the senior ones. Believe me, I do understand the risk/reward paradigm of this decision. But if it is approached correctly, the rewards for the individual and their colleagues are great.

If only one group’s “way of being” is valued, then unproductive groupthink can kick in and clients may choose competitors who can better understand and represent that client’s constituency. Firms trying to recruit the best future talent will also struggle if they cannot support the complex and different needs of their employees.

Plus, everyone can benefit from diverse role models, and building critical mass in any group does change perceptions and increase awareness of the issues that group faces. As a result, progressive people in power advocate for all staff – for example, look at the recent success of change-agent catalyzed diversity at companies like Campbell Soup.

We encourage other LGBT individuals (including men) and straight allies of all stripes to join us for our upcoming event! Progressive thinkers welcome!