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A women at work theme on PiC this month? No worries, I know lots of women at work.
My wife is a woman at work. She has been in a leadership or entrepreneurial roles since she was 23. My mother is semi-retired and continues running her business on a limited scale because she enjoys it. My daughter is (all too quickly becoming) a woman at work. Highly entrepreneurial, she has been actively seeking and taking on projects and work at least since the sixth grade. I’ve now worked for my current boss at two different organizations because she is one of the very best leaders I’ve encountered. The majority of my direct reports and co-workers are women – I am one of four guys in a department of 25 people. At my previous job I was the only dude in a department of seven. On any given day, I interact with far more women than men.
Actually, there is a little problem here. I know lots of women at work, but I know little about being a woman at work. Not being a woman myself, my perspective is a bit skewed. It’s always easy to assume everyone has had the same experiences I have – the same opportunities, challenges, setbacks, and advantages. But that’s not true.
There is a strong American ethos around being a self-made success. We like to be the underdog who overcomes the odds and our focus on equality means it’s usually seen as cheating to have an advantage. So we tend to be slow to acknowledge our own advantages. It’s easier to hold to the idea that any and all of our own success is self-made and, therefore, if someone isn’t as successful as we are it’s their own fault.
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However, this myth ignores the simple fact that any results we’ve created are due, not only to our own efforts, but also to good fortune, luck, timing, relationships, visibility, being given the benefit of the doubt, societal expectations, and a million other things outside of our direct control. That means we may have had it easier than some. There are likely plenty of people with more smarts, drive, effort, and persistence who, due to bad luck, poor timing, lack of connections, being overlooked, etc. may have worked just as hard and achieved less.
Consider small examples of the importance of these other factors. All else being equal, being in the right place at the right time can put a career in hyperdrive and wrong place at the wrong time can be a setback from which we never fully recover. Being given the benefit of the doubt can be the difference between a mistake being a “learning experience” or a career crisis. Knowing the right person can be the difference between landing a phenomenal career opportunity and never being considered.
This myth prevents us from fully seeing how the social and work structures we have personally benefited from could disadvantage (or at least not help) others. It makes it difficult to see how bias or discrimination might exist even in the absence prejudice or bad intention. It makes it easy to assume we can evaluate someone else’s situation based on our own.
This myth can skew our perspective of anyone who isn’t us. It keeps us from seeing how someone else’s experience might be different from our own and how that might be important. Different gender, age, race, ability, family situation, life stage, region, industry, company, etc. all play a factor. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback another person’s life and assume: 1) we fully understand their situation; and 2) we could do it better if we were them.
Regardless of who we are, it’s difficult to accurately understand and judge someone else’s life through our own lens. There is a bit of ancient wisdom attributed to Plato (and others) worth keeping in mind: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.