Articles > Why some women just can't fit in

Why some women just can't fit in
Globe & Mail, October 20, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A few weeks ago, I overheard an envy fest between two women.

Woman No. 1: "I wish I could be more like you -- no BS, tell the truth, take on the bullies, no worrying about what people think of you."

Woman No. 2: "I wish I could be more at ease like you, more socially adept, softer and more flexible."

If I had to place a bet, here's what I'd wager: Woman No. 1 has a position in an organization. She has spent her entire career in the corporate world. Woman No. 2 works on her own, far from the corporate world.

That's because their wistful descriptions of each other tell a much deeper story. They were actually pointing to some of the characteristics that relate to corporate fit. I've long been intrigued by why some women can make it in organizations while others must do their own thing in self-employment, far from organizational structures.

I am not talking about women who choose to leave the corporate world for greater work/life balance flexibility through self-employment, or to pursue a passion or an amazing business idea.

I'm talking about women who simply don't have a choice -- they just can't find a psychological space that works for them inside corporations, a place where they can feel comfortable and be authentic.

In researching my latest book, Dish (published as Women Confidential in the USA), I polled hundreds of professional women, including friends and clients, about their work experiences. I asked them to describe the characteristics that distinguish those who don't fit in the corporate environment from the accomplished women who have happily and successfully pursued a corporate career.

It was apparent, both from their responses and from my direct knowledge of these women, that the misfits have one thing in common: They possess more of an edge.

With more pointed personalities -- whether they're prickly introverts, over-the-top extroverts or relentless values-based lobbyists constantly battling the powers-that-be -- they are anything but "sugar and spice and all things nice."

Another common characteristic of the misfits is early memories of being different -- of trying to be liked and be like other kids, but always having a sense of "otherness."

As one independent consultant said: "Even in grade school, and then in high school, I would look at the other girls and wish I could be more like them, and try to copy them knowing I wasn't successful. They were always at ease, while I was the outsider trying to get in."

Many of the corporate square pegs also said that others often described them as being too direct, which they find perplexing.

One woman put it this way. "People always say: 'You are so direct.' I never understood this. How am I supposed to be indirect? What does that mean -- am I supposed to lie?"

Another said: "I was always the one who thought when someone asked a question, they wanted an answer -- whether it be bad or unwelcome news, or tough feedback. This alienated a lot of people."

It is this directness that underlies another common characteristic -- one, unfortunately, that I suspect I share. It's what I call the "piss-off" factor.

It works two ways. They often get more easily pissed off (because they have unrealistic expectations or standards, or are impatient or intolerant of others). And they piss off more people because of their directness.

As for the women who do fit in, if I had to distill their main differentiating characteristics, they would come down to flexibility and political savvy.

Unlike their more irritable can't-fit-in counterparts, those with a corporate fit can hold their tongue, think about consequences before they open their mouths, and decide which battles to fight and which ones are just not important enough to go to war over.

Take my friend, a vice-president in a large organization. I was visiting her vacation home a couple of years ago when she received a telephone call from one of her senior managers.

From what I could glean from her side of the conversation, he wanted advice on things that he should have been able to decide for himself.

Yet, she stayed on the line for an inordinately long conversation, politely, patiently and as if their talk was fascinating. I, in turn, thought: "What the heck is wrong with this guy? After all, you're on vacation. That's why he's being paid the big bucks. Why don't you just blow him off?"

When she finally hung up, she said: "Sometimes, I wish it was legal to murder your staff."

My point -- she was capable of acting like she cared.

The ability to conceal what you are feeling -- knowing that, to do otherwise, would be unhelpful, inappropriate or not get desired consequences -- is a great skill. Indeed, in terms of career regrets, many of the prickly types said that they wished they were less leaky about what they were thinking, had been more tolerant, and had been more capable of repressing some aspects of their personalities or ideas.

Is this a gender thing? I would say yes. True, men may also suffer the pangs of trying to fit in because of their personalities -- but far less often and to a lesser extent.

Why? Because the range of acceptable behaviour is more restricted for women than it is for men.

For example, we describe the extroverted guy as "friendly," "lots of fun" or "outgoing." We describe the extroverted woman as "bigger than life," "over the top" or "too much."

Similarly, the introverted guy is described as "thoughtful" and "quiet," while the introverted woman is seen as "withdrawn" and "not a team player."

The most common example: When a man raises objections over a conflict, he's "principled" and "tenacious." A woman, on the other hand, is simply a "bitch" or, the term I particularly like, "difficult."

Women are also much likelier to ask themselves questions such as "How do I feel here? Is the fit right? Can I express who I am?"

They are more self-conscious and more likely to take their emotional temperature, and so, more likely to experience the strains, and at a deeper level.

I have heard men talk about fit, but usually it is only after they have had some serious difficulties -- they've been fired, for example, and are reflecting on why the job wasn't right for them, or they've had a serious disagreement with their boss.

Fortunately, as one of the misfit types, I was able to carve out a career selling product and expertise, not schmooze and charm. And with time, one earns what social psychologists call "idiosyncratic credit" -- once you've reached a certain level of success, you get praised for qualities you would have been previously criticized for.

Now, when they say about me that "she's really authentic, really direct," it's meant as a compliment. But I still get into trouble and have those yucky feelings of not being accepted.

I recently resigned from an organization because I felt like I was walking around with a neon sign on my forehead that read, "Doesn't fit. Not one of us."

I guess you really never get over those feelings of otherness. But it's less painful to me than it was when I was younger.

Now, when a potential client doesn't seem to like me, I just tell myself, "Oh, well. Their loss."

How to increase your fit

Let's say you are one of the "don't-fit in" types. Does this mean you will never be able to hold down a corporate job or that your only option is self-employment? No. There are many ways in which you can enhance your fit:

The company: Find an organization that celebrates diversity in personal styles. Some industries are more welcoming and tolerant of bigger-than-life personalities. Media, publishing, high-end retail (fashion, design), non-governmental organizations and research and development-driven scientific organizations, for example, have always provided a more comfortable haven for people who don't quite fit in.

The boss: Find one who promotes self-expression and authenticity. Many senior leaders say this is one of their most important principles.

Pick your spot: If you are a woman, find a female-friendly workplace. Typically, these will have a greater representation of senior women.

Soften your edges: Be more politically savvy. You are not compromising who you are when you step back and decide which battles are worth fighting, and which aren't. It's called being strategic and exercising self-control.

How well do you fit in?

Select the statements from a) or b) that best describe you. The more a's that you select, the more likely it is you have difficulty fitting into conventional organizational structures.

a) I often seem to irritate people.

b) Most people would say I'm pretty easygoing.

a) When colleagues ask for my opinion on something, I tell them, whether the truth is pretty or not.

b) Before I offer an opinion, I think about how to express it. Sometimes, I wish I could be more direct.

a) When someone does something wrong, I quickly voice my opinion.

b) I know which battles to pick, and which to let go.

a) I get annoyed quite easily.

b) It takes a lot to annoy me.

a) If someone does something wrong or which I consider unprofessional, I feel it's my right to tell them.

b) Sometimes, people do something unprofessional toward me, but I let it go.

a) I can be prickly when someone asks me to do something I think wrong or that I don't want to do.

b) I will try to find a nice explanation to get out of doing something I don't want to do, or will just do it. It's not worth the energy to resist.

a) I seem to polarize people I work with. A lot of people are intensely loyal to me, but there are others who have a negative impression of what I'm like.

b) I get along with almost everyone.

a) I'm pretty leaky about what I'm feelings. People can usually tell when I'm pissed off or irritated.

b) I am conscious of the image I project and can keep what I'm feeling to myself, if I choose to, even if I'm really annoyed.