The history of women in the workplace began 250 years ago with The Daughters of Liberty, the first society of working women that was organized to boycott British goods. In 1903, 138 years later, the first National Women’s Trade Union League was formed. This league advocated for higher wages and improved working conditions for women.
When the men went off to World War I, women filled their roles in industry and service, proving women were as capable and valuable as their counterparts. World War II furthered this movement of women into the workplace when 7 million jobs left by men were filled by women. Congress passed an equal pay law in 1963, a law that still has not entirely seen fruition to this day.
The ‘60s and ‘70s brought more improvements to women’s rights in the workplace with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the banning of sex-segregated help wanted ads, and enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The headlong stride into progression continued in the ‘80s, when the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed to the Supreme Court and the first woman, Sally Ride, traveled into space.
Two and half centuries after The Daughters of Liberty society was formed, women make up nearly half of America’s workforce and hold 14 percent of the executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. Twenty-nine percent of businesses in the U.S. are now owned by women. The rise to power for women has been a long, hard-fought battle, and it still rages on today in a much more indirect way.
Gains and Losses
For all the power women have gained in the past few centuries, they still tend to subtly and slowly give it away. Perhaps these behaviors are ingrained in women from birth. Society teaches little girls that they are “less than” by using terms such as “like a girl” in a derogatory manner.
Standing out as unique and individual often makes children the subject of bullying or ridicule in school, so children learn to conform as a method of preservation. Young girls experience this the most acutely. As adults, women tend to avoid confrontation, demanding the spotlight and upsetting others. Here are some of the ways women give away power and how they can take it back.
- Minimalizing Language
Women tend to use words that undermine the authority of their message. Starting a sentence with “I just” and “I feel” or ending it with a supplication for agreement such as “don’t you think?” or “you know?” weakens the position of the speaker.
The key to taking back power is to speak with confidence, using compelling words that leave no room for doubt in the recipient’s mind. Switch “I feel” with “I know” and remove “just” from your vocabulary entirely. Don’t ask for validation at the end of your statement. If you know what you’re saying is true, convey that with self-assurance.
- Apologetic Language
Women tend to apologize when they think they’ve stepped outside of the cultural norm, which is a deeply embedded belief women should be soft and comforting. Being soft and comforting is not what gets a woman the rank of CEO in a Fortune 500 company. A woman can still be kind but adamant. She can still be approachable but tenacious.
You should never apologize for requiring someone’s time or attention. You are worthy, and by using apologetic language, you immediately give them the power over you. Save the “I’m sorry” spiel for when a mistake has been made or someone has been hurt. Use another phrase or eliminate the need for an introductory phrase entirely. If you have to interject into a conversation, say “Excuse me” without being apologetic.
- Resistance to Self-Promotion
Women are trained to be supportive and nurturing of others – their spouses, their children. Maternal instinct is a powerful force. Self-promotion goes against a woman’s natural urges, but in today’s workforce where men are promoted more than women, women need to take the initiative.
Walking the line between arrogance and self-promotion can be tricky, but a focus on personal branding can help you navigate wisely. Personal branding is about knowing your strengths, your desires and your unique qualities, then capitalizing on them. When people hear your name, what is the first thing you want to come to their minds? Don’t be afraid to advertise whatever it is that makes you a valuable commodity.
- Not Taking Credit When It’s Due
You run something by your boss before bringing it to the entire group, and at the next team meeting your boss brings it up before you, letting everyone think it was his idea. If you call him out in front of everyone, he’ll get mad, so you just let it go. Time passes and the idea you came up with saved the company thousands of dollars or landed the company a major client, and now someone else is getting the accolades. It’s too late to speak up now, and you just missed a major opportunity to gain career clout.
Has this ever happened to you? If it has, don’t ever let it happen again. If someone brings up your idea without directing credit to you, simply join in the conversation and add casually, “Yes, when I brought this idea to you … and I’d like to add,” which will let everyone it was your idea and that you are the expert on the subject.
- People Pleasing
Having someone angry with you or disappointed in you does not feel good, but being a people pleaser can hold you back in your career. Did you agree with a colleague just to avoid a conflict? Did you say yes to a request you didn’t really have time for? Have you ever let someone treat you poorly without speaking up for yourself? These are all things people pleasers do to sabotage themselves.
To break this cycle, you need put more value on your time and opinions. Is what that person is asking you to do going to benefit you both equally? If so, perhaps it’s OK to say yes. If not, they might be using you. If you don’t agree with a colleague, stand your ground. Maybe you have a better idea that would never get heard if you avoid the conflict. Putting yourself first does not make you a self-centered person. In fact, proper self-care allows you to give even more.
Women fought long and hard to attain the power and influence they now have. Women have the unique duality of being a care-taker and a charge-taker. That’s what sets them apart from men. It’s up to modern women to continue the progression by keeping their power and asserting their influence for future generations.