In this article I will
Define the problem in my own words
Share other people's experiences
Offer some advice
It’s well known that as women climb the career ladder they become less liked, whereas the inverse is normally true for men. Successful men are ambitious. Successful women are intimidating. We know this.
However, the idea of being “too” proactive, ambitious or visible at work is new to me. In my naivety, I never imagined that employers would be annoyed by someone working really hard and succeeding or doing cool things outside of work. But it has been somewhat of a recurring theme in conversations I’ve had recently, and I admit, those conversations have generally been with exceedingly motivated women, so my feelings on this may be biased.
Two different types of 'workplace gaslighting' are emerging out of my conversations:
Employers that want their employees to focus solely on their ‘main job’ and drop side projects. They want you to assimilate with the “culture”. They get annoyed when you don't go out for drinks with them several times a week. It baffles them that you want to have other things going on in your life, especially if those things require effort.
And those that get annoyed by quick succession, progression and visibility. Those that believe you only move up after X amount of years. These kind of employers advise you to "play the game". They might ask if you're taking on too much, even when your work is of gold standard.
It baffles me that the same words used in adverts to attract talent can then be used against someone who wants to progress quickly. I’m not saying women should be able to progress purely because they’re ambitious. I’m talking about women with a wealth of experience and testimonials behind them. I’ve heard countless stories of women being told they need to slow down and spend less time on their side hustles. The same side hustles that made them an attractive candidate in the first place. I know women who have had their authority unreasonably questioned and their experiences invalidated. And I’m not saying this is a problem that just women face, I really do welcome everybody’s experiences, but it seems to be something a lot of women I speak to experience. The researcher in me thinks I should be careful about generalising, but the sociologist in me is acutely aware of the systematic and institutional biases that exist in the workplace and beyond.
Do other people experience workplace/ career gaslighting?
I took to Twitter to see if see if this was something I was imagining. And although I had an inkling it wasn’t, I was surprised by the amount of noise my Tweet generated. Women from all walks of life and degrees of seniority have shared their experiences with me. I’ve removed some details in order to protect anonymity 💘
"I'm a designer who works at a branding agency. Earlier this year I was approached by a well respected blog run in my industry. The blog documents the creative lives of those who work in the industry ranging from Creative Directors to those like myself who are at the beginning of our careers. They wanted to know about me and my work. Over the past 5 years I’ve worked in some of the UK’s top agencies and have spoken at various design events. Basically I’m a big design nerd.
When I was approached to write this interview I briefly spoke to my boss about it along with some of my colleagues. One of which was senior member of staff who has written similar things for the studios PR and press. No one expressed any concern or advised me what I should write. Unfortunately my boss is notoriously bad at listening and is a massive control freak so when this article was published I was called into the meeting room by my manager /creative director. I was basically given a disciplinary and ended up having a massive meltdown. I was told that I should have asked first and what I did could have damaged ‘our brand.’ The article did nothing of the sort and sang our praises."
"I started out at an SME ad agency as an Apprentice Artworker, which was great as I got to get to know the technical side of print. However, I wanted to be more creative so I offered to learn and do more design and art direction work. I got promoted to Junior artwork after my apprenticeship ended and continued to move more into being more creative work while also being an artworker. I even did side projects for them to build up my skills in more busy times.
It was all going great and I got good feedback on my creative and art direction work. In all my reviews and appraisals I mentioned that I wanted my next step to be a full Designer and not an artworker. We started to get more and more busy as an agency, and it was apparent that we needed an extra pair of hands. I made it clear that I would like to move in to a full design role and maybe this new person could replace my artworking role - I would be happy to train them if they came in. However, they then put a job ad out for a junior designer, and when I questioned it they said that creative work is not in my job description and I was to go back to only artworking when this new person came in.
Funnily enough there was lots of fluff in the job ad about how they nurture their staff and want them to go above and beyond, look outside their role for example. They promoted me to Midweight Artworker with a new job description that said nothing about creative or art direction work. The consequences of this was that I left shortly after as I felt undervalued. They never actually got a grad designer in, and in fact, when they hired my replacement they refused to do any creative work as it ‘wasn’t in there job description’, and it impacted the team negatively as they were so used to me picking up creative work."
"Hello I saw your tweet about corps not liking female employees with their own profile or being too ambitious. I have two stories to share. One is where I was called “too ambitious” by a board member (white middle aged man, obvs) and another where a large tech company said they would have absolutely hired me for a role I had all the skills and experiences for if it weren’t for the fact I had my own podcast.
By the way I have 28 years experience in tech. It’s not like I’m a) a spring chicken or b) have ideas above my station"
What should I do when I experience this?
I don’t have a solution to the problem yet. I suspect it’s got something to do with expectation management and clear and honest communication. Something, that as an industry, we haven't really overcome. It's almost certainly got something to do with jealously and learning what to do when we feel that way. I do know, that we can't let other people's opinions get in the way of our success. And that we're supposed to stand up for ourselves, say yes to things we want to do and no to things we don't. And to perpetually talk about our achievements. But these things are easier said than done. Especially for women who are used to downplaying their successes or having their successes undermined. Here are a couple of practical tips that have helped me start to tackle this beast:
Record moments that you thought you would fail and didn't. These are useful for those moments when you doubt yourself. For example, I thought I would not pass my driving test, but I did. I never believed I would be able to get up in front of an audience and talk about my experiences with fear, but I did. They can be smaller than that. There was a period of time when I found getting out of bed too daunting, but I overcame that too. Sometimes it feels as though everything is caving in around you and that you couldn't possibly do all the things you believe you're capable of. Provide yourself with evidence of the contrary.
Seek out feedback and keep a record of it. Testimonials do wonders for your confidence. Even negative feedback is empowering. If people care enough to critique the way you work, they must believe you've got potential.
Keep your portfolio or CV up to date. After every project note what the challenges were, how you overcame those challenges, what challenges you didn't manage to overcome and what impact your findings/ work had. A couple sentences is enough. It's a lot harder to recall these memories in situ if you haven't noted them down. Everything you learn, no matter how small, will come in handy.
Stop apologising for yourself. Limit your use of words that minimise what you're asking for. Get rid of all the smileys. Say what you want to say but without the fluff. People won't think you're being rude. They'll think you're being clear.
Seek out support. This is the most important piece of advice I've received. I'm an extrovert, so going to meetups and events does my confidence wonders. But, there are things you can do even if you're not super comfortable going up to strangers and asking for advice. I recommend reaching out to people on Twitter and LinkedIn. Having a mentor and speaking to friends and family should never be underestimated. Whatever you preferred communication style, don't go it alone. I promise there will be someone out there willing to give you a hand. (hint, me!)
Oh and start applying for new jobs if you are continuously being put down. Good culture exists.
What about you? What's your experience been like? Join in on the conversation on Twitter!
P.s. This is a dynamic article, if you have experiences you'd like to add email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.