Soft, quiet & powerful (or, How to be Underestimated, always)

As a woman in business I am continually underestimated.

Actually, scratch that – as a woman on Earth I am continually underestimated, just like the rest of my sex – it’s just that running a kickass business that has made it so glaringly apparent to me.

People from the more conventional world of financial success see me – small, baby-faced, inclined towards linen dresses and rapunzelesque hair – and think that they have me all figured out. They put me tidily onto a box marked “of no concern”, and immediately add less weight and credence to what I say.

It’s in marked contrast to the reception I generally receive online. In this space, I guess I come across differently. Folks see my words and my work before they see my appearance. Perhaps the social proof of those numbers and blue ticks beside my name on social media give me some sense of automatic gravity that I lack in real life.
But face-to-face it is a different story, and it’s frustrating as hell. It’s also a gift, of sorts, I think. A secret superpower, even.

Hello, I exist

It’s frustrating because I am tired of proving myself. I am bone-achingly weary of having to struggle uphill to be taken seriously in shiny London boardrooms by shiny-suited men. 

I see it as a waste of both time and energy that could be better spent by all involved in actually working – doing whatever we actually met there to do. Plus honestly, it’s intimidating – I work better and contribute more openly when I’m not being openly misjudged. I’m human. Powerful people dismissing me still triggers waves of self-doubt, and it’s hard to share your views freely when you know they’ll most likely be dismissed. You have to weigh up how each point will work in your favour, as well as in the scope of the project at hand. It’s like playing a strategic game of 3D chess while everyone else just gets to argue between black and white pieces.

But, of course, there’s no way in hell I’m going to change myself to conform. I dress professionally, but I’m not about to turn up with power-suit and briefcase like some 80s movie makeover. I’ll never stop considering the emotions and sociology of my work because I fundamentally believe that is a strength for me: just because the more traditional world of business doesn’t acknowledge this is no reason to leave it behind. Changing who I am and how I work to fit with a dated and frankly moribund* methodology would be a foolish step backwards and for all the wrong reasons. I strongly believe that we – nuanced, sensitive, responsive women – are the future of media and communications and business. I believe we are an active part of a change.

Quiet women don’t change the world”, they say. Traditionally, that’s no doubt true – but isn’t that because it was the men writing the history books? Yes, by becoming more self-aggrandising, opinionated, forceful and loud, I could probably be heard better in these situations. By reducing all the ways I seem “feminine” and becoming more “alpha’ I could be taken more seriously by certain folk – but isn’t it time for some new routes to success?

Not least because all the success I have enjoyed so far in life has come by being soft, fluid, gentle and kind.

Of course, I’m aware that those ‘feminine’ traits didn’t form in a vacuum. Society conditions us to be timid and soft (and I’m a huge fan of Tara Mohr’s balanced work and research helping women push past some of the artificial barriers created for us by this). But tuning in to our emotions, defining success outside of numbers and putting community over competition isn’t exclusively female: in fact it’s arguably generically human. The issue is, men, especially men in a corporate world, are conditioned not to make room for it. Women are allowed, by way of all the other conditions laid upon us – and maybe this means we need to lead the charge in making it universal.
Even if that means we get dismissed sometimes.

I’m not special in this sense and I’m certainly not unique. Where I am perhaps fortunate is that I’ve been able to notice this paradigm because I get to see how strongly it contrasts with the response that eventually follows. Usually, it plays out like this:

[First meeting, set up by someone who understands my work between me and person significantly higher above them in the company]

Them: Yawn. Domineering/dismissive/disinterested.
Me: “ok, here’s what I do. Bye now.”

[Several weeks later, via email:]

Them: So, I actually looked at your work, or mentioned you idly in conversation with others who understand it. Turns out you’re brilliant! Allow me to flatter and make all possible allowances for you to be you.
Me: *does the work*

I guess this goes to prove two things: that a good reputation is still incredibly valuable, and equally, that it’s never enough. Frustrating, right? Especially if you’re at an earlier point in your career right now and don’t have that word of mouth or visible body of work available to start shifting their misinformed perceptions.

But wait. Remember when I said it’s kind of a gift too?

A sleeping superpower

In any sort of conflict, it pays to have an ace or two up your sleeve. When we’re dismissed for our gender, appearance or preconceptions about our industry or work, we’ve gifted the element of surprise. The person opposite us is actively choosing to be foolishly misinformed, and there are no situations in business or in life where the best outcome is achieved by a lack of accurate information. They might still win, but it won’t be the best result for them.

As the person in the room with the clearest insight into the situation, we always have the (quiet, sometimes timid) upper hand.

The trick is knowing when to use it, perhaps. It’s knowing when to say “go ahead, underestimate me – I’m too busy for this crap” – and when to fire off an email that is so articulate, comprehensive and downright fabulous that it pulls up all those pre-conceptions at the roots. It’s letting some of these altercations go, trusting that three years from now they’ll see you working with their competitors or hitting the bestseller list and slowly realise their mistake.

It is not our job – not ever – to educate the traditional business world on why (small/pretty/non-pretty/minority/older/younger/childbearing/childless/LGBT/skinny/big/religious/married/unmarried/etc) women are as worthy of consideration as anyone else . To anyone with half a brain cell that should be biological undisputed fact. We have enough to do dismantling centuries of patriarchal bullshit without taking responsibility for other people’s failure to keep up. 

It is only ever our job to do the work, to be open and ready, to represent ourselves as fairly and positively as we can. 

I have friends – of both genders – who are still mired in the corporate, Male-dominated business world. A world where success is still measured purely in profit, where pushing harder, playing to the ego and being hard are still the rules of the game. People for whom it’s the norm to work in ways that may be legal, but are still unethical – stealing a competitor’s idea, misleading consumers, exploiting employees, poaching clients or avoiding fair taxes – under the justification of “it’s perfectly legal” or even “just good business sense.” Nobody ever became rich by being nice, right?

But when I listen to them I see a Roman Empire set to crumble. I see consumers gathering en mass on social media to push back against these tactics – asking why, demanding change, sharing knowledge and seeing through the bullshit. I see #TimesUp, loud voices demanding their social media app has an ethical CEO, boycotts against businesses with bad ethics or relations. 

I see weak business models that can’t stand the test of time because they are built around hype and not heart. If you can’t be transparent with your audience or customers about what you do and why, you’re living with a ticking time bomb under your desk. 

We can make money – good money – on different terms to those dictated by the old guard of business. And with money comes influence and the ability to make real and powerful change.

Maybe quiet women have never made history – and I extend my heartfelt thanks to the women before us who fought loudly to build the world we have today. It’s a world where we can make history in entirely new ways – and those who won’t acknowledge us and our strengths will have to fall behind.