Here's your first coaching tip: Don't begin reading this book until you've
learned how to use it to your advantage. You'll only end up thinking everything
applies to you in equal proportions when in fact you're probably doing better
than you think. You know how we women can be-more critical of ourselves than
necessary and reluctant to take credit where it's due. When I coach women, I
often tell them that changing behavior is much easier if they can understand
where it comes from and what purpose it serves. All behavior serves a
purpose-take a few minutes now to understand what purpose yours serves.
From the outset I want you to know and, even more important, believe that the
mistakes impeding you from reaching your career goals or potential don't happen
because you're stupid or incompetent (although others might want to make you
think so). You are simply acting in ways consistent with your socialization.
Beyond girlhood, no one ever tells us that acting differently is an option-and
so we don't. Whether it's because we are discouraged from doing so or because we
are unaware of the alternatives, we often fail to develop a repertoire of
As an executive coach to both men and women in organizations of all sizes
around the world, I've had the opportunity to gain insight into why some people
move forward fluidly in their careers while others stagnate, never fully
reaching their potential.
Although there are plenty of mistakes made by both men and women that hold
them back, there are a unique set of mistakes made predominantly by women.
Whether I'm working in Jakarta, Oslo, Prague, Frankfurt, Wellington, or Detroit,
I'm amazed to watch women across cultures make the same mistakes at work. They
may be more exaggerated in Hong Kong than in Houston, but they're variations on
the same theme. And I know they're mistakes because once women address them and
begin to act differently, their career paths take wonderful turns they never
So why do women stay in the place of girlhood long after it's productive for
them? One reason is because we've been taught that acting like a girl-even when
we're grown up-isn't such a bad thing. Girls get taken care of in ways boys
don't. Girls aren't expected to fend for or take care of themselves-others do
that for them. Sugar and spice and everything nice-that's what little girls are
made of. Who doesn't want to be everything nice?
The virtues of girls are extolled in songs. "I Enjoy Being a Girl." "Thank
Heaven for Little Girls." "My Girl." "The Girl from Ipanema." Who wouldn't want
to be a girl? People like girls. Men want to protect you. Cuddly or sweet, tall
or tan, girls don't ask for much. They're nice to be around and they're nice to
have around-sort of like pets.
Being a girl is certainly easier than being a woman. Girls don't have to take
responsibility for their destiny. Their choices are limited by a narrowly
defined scope of expectations. And here's another reason why we continue to
exhibit the behaviors learned in childhood even when at some level we know
they're holding us back: We can't see beyond the boundaries that have
traditionally circumscribed the parameters of our influence. It's dangerous to
go out of bounds. When you do, you get accused of trying to act like a man or
being "bitchy." All in all, it's easier to behave in socially acceptable ways.
There's only one problem. When we live a life circumscribed by the
expectations of others, we live a limited life. What does it really mean to live
our lives as girls rather than women? It means we choose behaviors consistent
with those that are expected of us rather than those that move us toward
fulfillment and self-actualization. Rather than live consciously, we live
reactively. Although we mature physically, we never really mature emotionally.
And while this may allow us momentary relief from real-world dilemmas, it never
allows us to be fully in control of our destiny.
As I said in the introduction, observing, coaching, and facilitating
workshops for professional women have enabled me to learn firsthand how acting
like a girl gets in the way of achieving your career potential. Missed
opportunities for career-furthering assignments or promotions arise from being
reluctant to showcase your capabilities, feeling hesitant to speak in meetings,
and working so hard that you forget to build the relationships necessary for
long-term success. These behaviors are only magnified in workshops at which men
and women are the participants. My work in corporations allows me to facilitate
both workshops for only women and leadership development programs for mixed
groups within the same company. Even women whom I've seen act assertively in a
group of other women become more passive, compliant, and reticent to speak in a
The Case of Susan
Let me give you an example of a woman with whom I worked who wondered why she
wasn't reaching her full potential. Susan was a procurement manager for a
Fortune 100 oil company. She'd been with this firm for more than twelve years
when she expressed frustration over not moving as far or as fast as male
colleagues who'd commenced employment at the same time she did. Although Susan
thought there might be gender bias at play, she never considered how she
contributed to her own career plateauing. Before Susan and I met one-on-one in a
coaching session, I had the opportunity to observe her in meetings with her
At the first meeting I noticed this attractive woman with long blond hair,
diminutive figure, and deep blue eyes. Being from Texas, she spoke with a
delicate Southern accent and had an alluring way of cocking her head and smiling
as she listened to others. She was a pleasure to have in the room, but she
reminded me of a cheerleader-attractive, vivacious, warm, and supportive.
As others spoke, she nodded her head and smiled. When she did speak, she used
equivocating phrases like "Perhaps we should consider . . ."; "Maybe it's
because . . ."; and "What if we . . ." Because of these behaviors no one would
ever accuse Susan of being offensive, but neither would they consider her
After several more meetings at which I observed her behavior vis-à-vis her
peers, Susan and I met privately to explore her career aspirations. Based on her
looks, demeanor, and what I had heard her say in meetings, I assumed she was
perhaps thirty to thirty-five years old. I was floored when she told me she was
forty-seven, with nearly twenty years' experience in the area of procurement. I
had no clue she had that kind of history and experience-and if I didn't, no one
else did either. Without realizing it, Susan was acting in ways consistent with
her socialization. She had received so much positive reinforcement for these
behaviors that she'd come to believe they were the only ways she could act and
still be successful.
Susan bought into the stereotype of bein' a girl.
Truth be told, the behaviors she exhibited in meetings did contribute to her
early career success. The problem was that they would not contribute to reaching
future goals and aspirations. Her management, peers, and direct reports
acknowledged she was a delight to work with, but they didn't seriously consider
her for more senior positions or high-visibility projects. Susan acted like a
girl and, accordingly, was treated like one. Although she knew she had to do
some things differently if she were to have any chance of reaching her
potential, she didn't have a clue what they would be.
I eventually came to learn Susan was the youngest of four children and the
only girl in the family. She was the apple of Daddy's eye and protected by her
brothers. She learned early on that being a girl was a good thing. She used it
to her advantage. And as Susan grew up, she continued to rely on the
stereotypically feminine behaviors that resulted in getting her needs met. She
was the student teachers loved having in class, the classmate with whom everyone
wanted to be friends, and the cheerleader everyone admired. Susan had no
reference for alternative ways of acting that would bring her closer to her
dream of being promoted to a vice president position.
We're All Girls at Heart
Although Susan is an extreme example of how being a girl can pay huge
dividends, most of us have some Susan in us. We behave in ways consistent with
the roles we were socialized to play, thereby never completely moving from
girlhood to womanhood. As nurturers, supporters, or helpmates, we are more
invested in seeing others get their needs met than we are in ensuring that ours
are acknowledged. And there's another catch. When we do try to break out of
those roles and act in more mature, self-actualizing ways, we are often met with
subtle-and not-so-subtle-resistance designed to keep us in a girl role. Comments
like "You're so cute when you're angry," "What's the matter? Are you on the
rag?" or "Why can't you be satisfied with where you are?" are designed to keep
us in the role of a girl.
When others question our femininity or the validity of our feelings, our
typical response is to back off rather than make waves. We question the veracity
of our experience. If it's fight or flight, we often flee. And every time we do,
we take a step back into girlhood and question our self-worth. In this way we
collude with others to remain girls rather than become women. And here is where
we must begin to accept responsibility for not getting our needs met or never
reaching our full potential. Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, "No one
can make you feel inferior without your consent." Stop consenting. Stop
colluding. Quit bein' a girl!
Managing Your Anxiety
I can see by the looks on women's faces, and from their comments, that
anxiety and confusion are part of the learning process. My 1989 audiotape,
Women and Power: Understand Your Fear/Releasing Your Potential, and my
book, Women, Anger & Depression: Strategies for Self-Empowerment (Health
Communications, 1991) contain now dated examples, but the content related to the
process remains on target. More than a decade later, when the suggestion is made
to embrace their power, women reject the notion of being perceived as too
masculine, aggressive, or uncooperative out of fear. It is so counter to our
socialization that we dismiss it out of hand. The notion that we must be for
others rather than for ourselves is implanted so strongly that we are reluctant
to explore the alternative.
The irony is that women act powerfully all the time, but in ways different
from men. Relying on our "girlish charm" can be just as influential, but less
direct and less confrontational. In other words, we wield power less directly
than men. We've learned to be less direct so we will not be perceived as taking
too much power away from men. This is at the core of our difficulties with
gaining increased influence skills and organizational visibility.
Each time a woman directly asserts herself, however, she is essentially
saying to the men in her life (whether they are husbands, sons, bosses, or other
male authority figures), "I want something from you. I want what is rightfully
mine. I expect my needs to be met, too." With each assertion we frequently feel
guilty. We equate taking control back with taking something away from someone
More than simply getting what we need, deserve, or want, we are forcing
others to give back what we have been giving away for so long. The reactions we
get are difficult to cope with. Others don't really want the situation to
change-they already have everything they need, so why should they change?
Resistance to change is normal. It is to be expected. Like the alcoholic in
recovery who finds others colluding to bring him or her back to a place of
intoxication, the girl who moves toward womanhood will find herself faced with
people who want to continue to infantilize her. This is what you must keep in
mind if you want to achieve your goals.
What's a Girl to Do?
Here are some specific coaching tips-a prelude of what is to follow. Take
them one at a time. Don't try to do them all at once- you'll only set yourself
up for frustration. Choose one or two on which to work, then come back for more.
• Give yourself permission to move from girlhood to womanhood. It may seem
like a simple idea, but it's one that is often resisted for all the reasons
mentioned above. Have a good, long talk with yourself. Tell yourself that you
are not only allowed, but entitled to act in ways that move you toward goal
attainment. Try the mantra I am entitled to have my needs met, too.
• Visualize yourself as you want to be. If you can see it, you can have it.
Picture yourself in the role to which you aspire. If it's in the corner office,
see yourself at the desk with the accoutrements that go along with it. Consider
the behaviors in which you will engage to warrant this position and the ways in
which you will act. Bring them into your reality.
• Talk back to the fearful voice inside your head. This may sound crazy at
first, but you must counter the old messages and replace them with new ones. If
your fearful girl's voice says, "But no one will like me if I change," let your
woman's voice respond with, "That's an old message. Let's create a new, more
• Surround yourself with a Plexiglas shield. The Plexiglas shield is designed
to allow you to see what is going on around you, but not be punctured by the
negativity of others. I suggested this to a client, who later told me she
thought it sounded a little crazy but decided to try it-only to find that it
worked! In difficult situations she would picture herself encapsulated in a
Plexiglas bubble that protected her from the disparaging remarks of others and
allowed her to remain in a grounded, adult position.
• Create the word on the street. A routine exercise we do in leadership
classes is to ask participants to write a twenty-five-word vision statement of
how they want to be described, then list the behaviors needed to get them there.
You can do the same. Write down what you want others to be saying about you,
then follow it up with specific actions to make it happen. In short, accept the
responsibility of adulthood.
• Recognize resistance and put a name to it. When you find others resisting
your efforts to be more direct and empowered, con-ider first that their
responses are designed to keep you in a less powerful place. Rather than
acquiesce, question it. Say something like, "It seems you don't agree with what
I'm saying. Let me give you the rationale for my position and then perhaps you
can tell me what it is you take issue with."
• Ask for feedback. If you're worried that you are in some way acting
inappropriately, ask a trusted friend or colleague for feed-back. Avoid asking a
yes-no question (such as, "Did you think I was out of line?"). Try asking an
open-ended question that will give you insight into how you are perceived (such
as, "Tell me what I did in that meeting that helped me or hindered me from
achieving my goals").
• Don't aim for perfection. Even I don't engage in all the behaviors
described in this book. There are some that are just so counter to my
personality, I don't even try; others that, no matter how hard I try, I don't do
well. The important thing is to do a few really well and allow the rest to fall
Now it's up to you. Go get' em!
Copyright © 2004 by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.
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Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. was a pioneer in the field of
business coaching and is still one of the few coaches in the country with a
combination of ten years working in human resources at a Fortune 10 oil company
and psychological expertise. To learn more about her, visit her web sites: