Women in leadership roles have been much discussed in the news lately. Some even say that the struggles women have faced to advance are no longer relevant. But the difficulty of being a woman in a groundbreaking position is a struggle I have experienced firsthand, and I think the challenges are still present in some occupations.
My journey to the cockpit was full of barriers and naysayers, and it was one that required grit, determination and perseverance. Even after I reached my goals, I tried not to draw attention to myself, I tried to maintain a low-profile. But along with being six feet tall, I was a woman in what had been boys-only game up to that point.
Wary of seeming arrogant, I avoided having pictures taken of myself in front of airplanes when my friends—mostly men—were snapping pictures left and right. In retrospect, this seems a little silly ( ok, A LOT silly), but at the time I didn’t want to stand out.
That was an impossible task.
In a US study on conformity to feminine norms, researchers uncovered what women associate as the most important attributes of femininity. These include being friendly and nice in relationships, pursuing a thin body ideal, refraining from calling attention to one’s talents or abilities (modesty), maintaining the home (domesticity), caring for children, investing in romantic relationships, sexual fidelity, and using one’s own resources to invest in one’s personal appearance.
The ideal of taking on a leadership role is nowhere in the list.
It’s important to understand why this matters.
All of this means that in order to conform, women need to be willing to play a small game and avoid rocking the boat. We’re expected not to be assertive, not to carry around an extra ten pounds, and certainly not to tell people we are kicking ass in our jobs.
But playing small serves nobody!
And trying to fit in or fly under the radar can negatively affect men just as well.
A study done by the Hay Group shows that women are less likely to take charge of their own career advancement and are even hesitant to accept promotions if they don’t expect it or don’t feel 100 percent qualified for the position. They are less likely to be their own advocates and take charge of their journeys.
Accepting a leadership position takes courage, regardless of your gender, but avoiding new responsibilities out of fear of standing out, or by requiring 100% certainty means that you’re passing up your chance to grow into a high-performing leader.
Social norms can take a while to change, and when gender stereotypes persist, sometimes it’s hard to know when to challenge the status quo.
How can you tell when to stand up or stand out?
Here are three ways to stop flying under the radar as a woman in the workplace.
- Make Leadership a Goal: In a US study on conformity to feminine norms, researchers uncovered that the attributes women most associate with femininity are being friendly and nice in relationships, body image, child-rearing, and so on. Leadership? Nowhere in the list. Playing small serves nobody. Set a goal to take on leadership roles in your everyday life, in the workplace or out.
- Squash Self-Doubt: Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” By banishing your fixed mindset and recognizing that growth is possible, you’ll feel empowered to take new chances—even when you feel less than qualified for a position. Learning is always possible.
- Take No Notice of Naysayers: Even outside of the military, I’ve received criticism for taking on leadership roles. At a recent dinner with a client, a senior female executive asked me why I was working even though my husband works, too, and I have kids. This woman could not fathom why I would have ambitions outside of the home. If I wasn’t prepared to speak up and know my own value—removed from the feedback I receive from others—I wouldn’t be where I am today.
So the norms are still the norms, and standing up and speaking out is what is required. Knowing your value, speaking up, and not flying under the radar—this is what fearless leadership is about.
Carey Lohrenz is the author of the Wall Street Journal Best Seller “Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons from the Flight Deck.”, a motivational speaker and leadership expert.
Carey has flown missions worldwide as a combat-mission-ready United States Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot. Her extensive experience operating in one of the world’s most challenging environments, an aircraft carrier, and her unique position as one of the first female combat pilots make her the perfect opening or closing inspirational keynote speaker for your corporate meeting or conference.
Carey graduated from the University of Wisconsin where she was a varsity rower, also training at the Pre-Olympic level. After graduation, she attended the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School before starting flight training and her naval career. She is the mother of four kids, and is currently working on her Master’s in Business Administration in Strategic Leadership.