Our Duty as Working Women
By: Emilie Fournier
“I heard a rumor that you’re sleeping with that VP who mentors you, apparently someone saw you two looking cozy in his office the other day.”
I remember the day someone came up to me in the coffee line and said this. I felt shocked, hurt, and embarrassed as a wave of shame overcame me. Had I done anything inappropriate and brought this upon myself? Would he find out about this rumor and end our mentoring relationship? Was this how others perceived me in the office? I couldn’t help but think no one would’ve noticed or cared if I had been a man in the exact same situation...
For the first time in my career, I thought about my position as a young woman in a large corporation and how this could be perceived at all levels of the organization. As a girl who grew up hearing she could do anything she set her mind to, I never wavered in my desire to pursue opportunities — I share my opinion, I sit at the table, and I ask for what I want. Until that morning, it had never crossed my mind that my ambition could be misconstrued and seen as anything other than looking to learn and grow. It was my first lesson in understanding that people’s perception of you and your actions can sometimes overshadow merit and hard work. In that moment I vowed to stand tall and have difficult gender-related conversations in the workplace.
An opportunity to do just that came up a few weeks later when two of my male colleagues mentioned that an assorted group of about thirty people meets every Thursday for after work drinks. I told them I had never heard of a standing event like this and asked if any women were invited; they both looked at me with surprise and sheepishly confessed that no, there weren’t any women invited because they didn’t want any women to think they were proposing “anything inappropriate” and they didn’t know how to handle the situation.
The conversation was awkward and I had an urge to change the topic but I remembered the commitment I had made. Just like the Manbassadors movement (which started at HBS — more info here), I hoped to have an honest conversation about gender issues in our company and create some Manbassadors right here at the office. We talked about how things wouldn’t change until everyone could talk openly and honestly without feeling judged or worrying about retribution.
Looking back on that conversation brought up a lot of questions around responsibility for me. As a young woman in business, what is my responsibility to my peers? To the incoming generation? To the women who paved the way for me?
This concept of responsibility towards ourselves, today’s business women, and tomorrow’s generation feels heavy to bear but has immeasurable importance. I worried that my position as an aggressive (yes the dreaded “aggressive woman” title which I embrace and cherish — more on that in a future post) and ambitious young woman was insurmountable and that I would need to “play nice” in order to be successful at work. I choose to continuously flip this on its head and instead feel that it is our duty to be true to ourselves and to harness the power of perceptions to push gender issues to the forefront. Let’s continue (or for some, start) to seek out mentorship, offer up our opinions, and have those awkward conversations; you owe it to all of us.