Don’t put me in that box (Part 3): when you’re most likely to be ‘boxed’

As I mentioned in part 1& 2 (here), for part of my PhD research I interviewed senior women leaders in Australia (working in traditionally ‘male’ industries) surrounding how they think they’re see by their co-workers, and if/how they attempt to manage the perceptions of others (about them).

One of the biggest themes we ended up talking about surrounded key times in their careers when they really felt that their ‘identities’ were scrutinized by those around them. During these times, there seemed to be a bigger chance to feel ‘boxed’ or seen incorrectly by their colleagues, and they had to “renegotiate” their identities.

1. Pregnancy.  There’s nothing like growing rounder and rounder at work; when pregnant, your body is pretty much much out of your control. While you’re already dealing with not recognizing yourself, sometimes it feels like your coworkers also think that you are no longer “you”. You have morphed into a living, breathing, baby-machine who only wants to talk about her body and her baby, right?  Some women love it, some women love it less. Personally, when pregnant, I found it strange to walk into a meeting, have everyone look me up and down, and then have to answer (often several time a day): “is it a boy or a girl?”, “how do you feel about the baby?”, “do you have a name…”, and then have relative strangers tell you that your bump looks  “small/just-right/enormous”, or that you’ve “only gained weight on the belly!” (not in my case, ahem) etc.  The worst part (in my opinion) is when colleagues (particularly those you’re not even really associated with, or those that happen to be the pervy-guy-types) attempt to rub your belly. Like it’s not part of you.

I’m not saying that your co-workers mean you harm – they’re often kind people who genuinely care.  It’s just that now, whether you like it or not, there is a new identity (pregnant co-worker, future ‘mom’) that you’re going to have to accept as part of your professional identity, and find a way to incorporate into who you are. There’s no more hiding.  While each leader had their own take on being pregnant at work, here’s a quote that made me chuckle  from a senior woman leader:

“I  think that when a man who you are working with sees you’re getting fatter and fatter and more and more pregnant, they find it very difficult to disassociate you from their wife. Their perspective changes on you, it does.”

2. Being the new mom. Coming back from maternity leave is also a time where you’ll need to renegotiate the ‘new you’ with your co-workers, and yourself.  Even if you’re not the primary carer, or you have wicked-reliable daycare services, it’s a challenge to be exactly the same as you once were.  Every woman is different with respect to how much of her professional identity is now comprised of being a ‘mom’. And that’s OK because there are different standards of happiness and success depending what is important to you.

Sometimes you feel that you get put into the ‘mommy’ box, and you can even be passed up for opportunities or promotions because of your assumed status as a “new-mother-who-no-longer-cares-about-work” (right? um, no). On the other hand, in some offices it can feel like nobody actually does see or care that you’re a new mom with new responsibilities that you’re trying to balance.  Either way, being a first-time mom at work is one of those times where you’ll need to re-negotiate the ‘new you’ at the office.

When dealing with the change, from my interviews, I noticed there were many different – and successful – strategies of the new ‘working mom’. Just a few extremes for illustrative purposes (no, we all don’t fit into these boxes!):

  • The compartmentalizer. You keep your work identity and home identity separate, and you don’t see why the ‘new’ work you is not the same as the ‘pre-baby you’.  You barely even see yourself as a mother anymore when you step into the office.  If you’re one of this group, it’s really annoying to be tagged as the ‘new mom’ by others. One woman I interviewed stated: “When I’m at work, It doesn’t even occur to me that I have a son.”
  • The integrator. You try hard to (in one way or another) to integrate being a mom into your professional identity. It involves teaching your colleagues that you’re a ‘new and improved’ version of yourself.  You hope that others still know what you’re good at, recognize you for it, and respect that you’re not going to be able to be the work-android you once were.
  • The happy Mommy. While work is important, family is more important at the moment; ‘mom’ forms a really big part of who you are. You proudly paste pictures of your baby on every surface available and want to celebrate the fact that you’re a mother with pretty much anyone who will ask. You don’t want to waste any time that you could have with your children at work (note: after work drinks are a no go). You toy with the idea of leaving work for a while during baby-phase, but will make the decision after baby #2.

3. Becoming boss.  Moving from being part of a team, to leading a team (or organization), is a time where you go through an important identity transition at work – you’re becoming ‘the boss’.  It’s challenging for a few reasons: (1) first you need to accept and see yourself as a leader, and (2) others need to accept you as a leader.

Even if you’ve always wanted to become ‘leader’ of your team or organization, when you finally get offered the position, it might be hard to incorporate this new role into your self-definition. Women are particularly prone to the imposter syndrome (e.g., the “I’ve fooled them all into thinking I’m better than I really am” syndrome).  Many of the women leaders I interviewed found that it took some time to finally say, “I deserve this, I AM the leader”, and start seeing themselves as one. To let themselves out of their pre-defined box and start thinking of themselves differently. I’m not saying this box is only self-imposted…today the ‘prototypical’ leader is still male, and white.  One CEOs quote sums it up:

In hindsight, people saw me as high-performing and gave me opportunity and made me a manager. I always got great projects. At the time though, I was full of doubt and was a workhorse just to prove that I was up to doing the job as I think a lot of women are.” 

Getting others to accept you as a leader (particularly as a woman in a male-dominated organization) is a another bird. It can be tough, and in many cases, women leaders throughout their careers had to rely on positional power and tell themselves “well, my title makes me the leader, so that’s that, deal with it“, because they felt it would never happen.  In some cases they had to leave the company, to be accepted as a leader elsewhere in a more inclusive company culture.  One woman stated “they saw me as a silly little chick, a stilly little girl, and I just couldn’t change it“.

There’s a whole other post, and tons of research on this topic alone. As I’ve written a lot for today (sorry!),  I’m going to write more later on the strategies used by women to influence other’s views (of them).

The other parts of this long ‘series’:

Part 1: Don’t put me in that box
Part 2: Worrying about what other’s think
Part 3: When you’re likely to be boxed
Part 4: Strategies for influencing other’s perceptions (upcoming)


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