Get back inside your box!
Recently I wrote a short article for the My Labels series for the @metroUK @metro.co.uk newspaper on being Asian. I was exceedingly flattered to be asked but wow, what a difficult piece to write. Although I have many attributes that would slot me nicely into that category, I would also say that to leave me there would not have captured me well at all. I started feeling claustrophobic at just having that one designation.
Earlier this week, I posted (a little gleefully, I will confess) an article about women being better traders and investors for they are not prone to panic unlike their male counterparts. Women together unite and cheer, especially those who have been derided ceaselessly by anxiety-stricken men. For me, the main reason for celebrating this article is that women are reputed to be ‘overly emotional’, ‘drama queens’, ‘hysterical’ (see @serenawilliams), ‘nervous ninnies’, ‘hormonal’ – you get the picture, and yet this article proves the reverse. Although I did not particularly experience this in my place of work, I did hear this about others, and who knows what was said about me behind my back? These descriptions take even more significance in male-dominated industries where testosterone-like behaviours are the norm and anything resembling ‘typical’ feminine traits is pooh-poohed.
This article isn’t intended to be a male-bashing one, in fact to the contrary. I’m here today to highlight stereotypes, the danger of succumbing to them with little evidence and thought and the opportunity cost of not looking beyond that stereotype.
My experience of working in the City was remarkably, mostly free of bias and discrimination. My bosses, peers and colleagues were for the most part respectful, intelligent and appreciative of my contribution. Sure, I encountered a few p.erverts and lecherous octopuses (tentacles/hands everywhere) but I’d suggest those exist in all industries and walks of life, male and female. In equal measure, my amazing team members were all male, and to varying degrees, more ‘feelings’ focused than others. Some were hot-headed, others level-headed. We had a nervous fund manager would change his mind about the direction of a trade as soon as the order was given.
The point is that none of these people fit any stereotype and they bring a lot more to the party than the stereotype. And yet, we live in a world where people are so keen to judge and put people in boxes. Psychologically, it is a known phenomenon whereby it helps people sort and process masses of information quickly and efficiently. The former is certainly true but sadly, the latter can lead to some very unhealthy conclusions drawn. In fact, I would just call it downright lazy if one’s opinions are drawn solely from shallow stereotypes and nothing else.
What is a Stereotype?
‘A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing’ OED
I have been known to remark that ‘stereotypes exist for a reason’. However, I would like to add that, the reason may not be all that good and the stereotype will have failed to take the whole picture into consideration.
Case Study I
I have a lot of clients who will have performed the same role for a long time. As such they get pigeon-holed into stereotypical traits that someone in that position would have. This stereotype is often reinforced by the client himself who starts believing in this proverbial press. Client X is a sales trader and has been doing it for over two decades and is pretty successful in this role. He wants to move on and do something else – hopefully equally as challenging and rewarding but in a different guise. Ideally, it would be in a more senior role either internally or external to his current company. However, he doesn’t know how to go about working out what that new role is and how to prove that he is ready for this new challenge. He has stereotyped himself into believing and assuming that all he has to offer is the ability to buy and sell shares and understand how the markets work. Speaking with headhunters, many only saw him in the same way – someone with all the extroverted and slippery traits of Gordon Gecko ie an implausible offering for management, and nothing else.
Case Study II
Client Y was looking to improve the perception that her fellow board members had of her. She noted that she was proud of the fact that she had been invited to join the board but she felt that her presence was not particularly desired nor respected. Off the mark comments like ‘We were going to ask you to head up this new venture but because we know family is important to you, we didn’t think you’d want this extra responsibility’. How on earth does one not get up and punch the lights out of someone?? Every time she spoke, she was ‘mansplained’ to or interrupted. It was just assumed that as she was a female, she would not understand what was being discussed at board level but they needed a token representative. Irrelevant was the fact that she was the highest performer in her division, she had a PhD in the subject matter of the business and that she had previous leadership roles under her belt. She was deemed a ‘bit of fluff’ to appease the box-tickers.
- Think about the stereotypes about you. Where are they correct and how & when do they work for you? Knowing this will help you relate better to how people might perceive you and perhaps you will have better empathy in facilitating improved conversations
- Think about what there is about you that isn’t the stereotype and which of those are transferable. In Case Study I, sales traders use a lot of other skills such as negotiation; building and managing long-term relationships with clients; understanding clients needs and delivering; the ability to think and act with thought & care but quickly; the capacity to juggle and manage multiple conversations & tasks at the same time whilst still performing a role with focus, care and dexterity; being able to coordinate and collaborate with clients, various internal and external departments for a successful outcome – the list is endless
- Stand up for yourself and dispel the myths through careful and considered words and action. Prove that you are more than just your stereotype. It will be a very satisfying moment when you show your detractors just how capable you are
- Constructively and actively challenge the critics. Call them out on their bull sh*t. Try and understand why they think what they do. Engage with them to see if you can help change their viewpoints and perhaps you will be able to do the same for them too
- There is every chance that the stereotypers and their subsequent behaviours don’t even know they are doing it. It’s that concept of unconscious bias. Help them learn to be less ignorant
Ultimately if you don’t like being stuck in the box that was chosen for you, think about how you would like to be seen and walk the walk!
This article will have barely scratched the surface on the topic of stereotypes but I am hoping that it will have given you something to think about. Stereotypes are not easy and they certainly dumb humanity down a lot if it generalizes people to the extent of sheer stupidity, ignorance and possibly bigotry and hatred. If smart, people will use the similarities and diverse strengths in equal measure that we all have to offer. The world would be a much happier, productive and successful place. You are greater than the sum of all your parts. Get out of your box and thrive!!!!!
Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive & business coach who has worked with start-ups and social enterprises through to large established corporates (including FTSE100 companies) across a number of industries including financial services, engineering, retail and media & communications. She also advises boards on their dynamics. Added to this, she spent almost twenty years working at a senior level in fund management. She also has a Masters in Organisational Psychology. For more please see here or contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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