Dear Dr. Andrea,
I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. I have always been interested in this field and have absolutely no regrets in making it my career, and in fact more women come into it all the time. The problem is, I am typically on teams with all men, and I have grown more and more self-conscious about that fact. You’d think it would be easier over time. But over the years, I have stopped being myself to the point where I don’t even recognize the “work persona” that I put on. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like I’m so aware that I’m the only woman that I overcompensate and am always thinking in those terms, always inside my own head, always trying to fit in. I try to be “one of the guys,” but sometimes it goes the other way too — I’ll be called upon to give the “female opinion” and it’s like I am speaking for all women everywhere.
I am tired of being “the woman” when I just want to be the employee, but I’m also really worried deep down that if I just let myself be womanlike, I will be alienated. No one’s even doing anything specific; I like my team, and I don’t think this is their fault. Late this fall, I will likely be up for a promotion, which now has me thinking it will get even worse because I’ll be the manager of these guys, and then all the stereotypes, worries and biases will be front and center once again, and I will second-guess everything. It’s like I’ve completely lost my way and I don’t like being like this.
— When did this become such a thing?
It’s a classic psychological struggle: Something has become A Thing in your mind, and the fact that it’s now A Thing is more burdensome than the original something. For you, that extra layer of interpretation about gender — the over-thinking, over-interpreting and over-censoring — has grown much weightier than the original gender dynamic. (For others, the gender dynamic itself is the true problem.) We call this excessive self-monitoring, and it’s significant in people with social anxiety. But it also comes up in narrower ways, like what you’re experiencing.
The key to stepping outside of your head about this is recognizing that the lens you are constantly looking through is distorted. You already know this generally, but you’ve got to label the distortion in a concrete way in the moment, so that you can gradually extract yourself from it. Yes, gender dynamics are real in the workplace (and deserving of their own column). And to be clear, everyone has a work persona that differs somewhat from their true self; that’s not automatically a problem. But your level of overthinking these things is not helping you. It’s hindering your autonomy.
You can start to move on from this by noticing particularly intrusive thoughts as they come. What, exactly, are you telling yourself in specific moments? That what you want to say won’t fit in because it’s too “girly?” That the guys won’t relate to your viewpoint? That they won’t value your opinion? That if you let yourself be you, you’ll be deemed not tough enough, not smart enough, not interesting enough? That if you say X, Y or Z (or don’t say those things!) then you’ll be the odd (wo)man out?
When you notice these thoughts, identify the lies they’re telling you — and refute them with evidence, reminding yourself how out of proportion to objective reality this Big Mental Thing has grown. Call the thoughts something tangible, like “the Gender Bully,” so that you can separate yourself from them. And notice patterns of when you feel most vulnerable to them, like when you’re underprepared or under-slept, or when certain topics come up in conversation.
Choose each day to take small risks, like letting yourself say something authentic that the Gender Bully hasn’t vetted, or refusing to say something just because the Gender Bully said you should. In time, you’ll get desensitized to those thoughts’ presence and gain some freedom.
Finally, keep returning to basic truths: You enjoy your industry, you like your team and you do a good job. None of that is gender-conditional. Keep connecting with other women in your industry, whether informally or through professional associations, but go deeper. Workplace gender issues are their own problem, of course, and are often the elephant in the room. But this meta-level issue — the big mental elephant that grew from the other one — is more common than people realize and worthy of its own supportive discussion.