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Building Blocks for the Girls

I noticed recently when cleaning up the Lego covering the entirety of my son’s bedroom, that the number of female Lego characters is quite limited, especially in terms of strong leadership role models. I don’t count ‘Zombie Cheerleaders’ or ‘Ghost Witch’ as models to aspire to. More so that the Lego sets aimed at girls still remain predominantly pink and purple while the boys get red and black gunships and towers of doom. Of course there is Princess Leia but while Luke gets the blue lightsabre and double blasters she gets the interchangeable mop and oven gloves and has to make do with using the ‘Force’ to clean the Millennium Falcon. (They cut that scene from the movie).

I joke of course but when we look at movies there is still a dearth of strong female roles that truly hold their own in the film and are not there to look pretty or die screaming. Often they are let down by scripts that give the memorable lines to their co-stars. Clarice Starling was superb in Silence of the Lambs but do we think of her when we have someone over for dinner with a nice chianti…? Sarah Connor gave birth to the resistance, but she didn’t say “I’ll be back!” Elizabeth Bennett considerably holds her own in Pride and Prejudice but mention the film and most of us talk about Mr Darcy diving into the lake… So exceptions like Mary Poppins and Ripley in the Alien series aside,(and that’s quite a combo), female leaders on screen, and in the toy shops, are still playing catch up.

There are, of course, modern real life female business leaders and global figures from whom we can draw inspiration and who are on the leading edge of equality and empowerment. But they are still few and far between and, for every enlightened male and female boss or guru, there are dozens of others still waiting to knock you down or refusing to change their deep set values and beliefs. In some cases this leads to women setting up all female networks to allow themselves the opportunity to share like-minded stories of inequality and bias. The danger here is that unless they also include practical tips on what to do, and how to make changes, these meetings simply become complaint nights where short term relief is gained by sounding off about how bad things are at work and finishing with ritual burnings of voodoo dolls of male (and sometimes female) bosses. Moreover they risk alienating male colleagues and bosses who do believe in equality in all walks of life and are working hard to achieve this too.

If all we do is complain and blame others, while we might feel better in the moment, the next day nothing will have changed at work. Speaking to a male CEO recently he told me he was appalled when one of his female peers, who was a HR Director for Europe, told him her husband allowed her this ‘distraction’ providing it didn’t affect his career and she didn’t expect him to get up with the kids every night as he couldn’t function without a good sleep!

So what am I saying? That we should boycott Lego and leave our spouses? No, of course not. Though if we lose our sense of humour this challenge can seem overwhelming. But we do need to do something when trying to assert ourselves in work and at home, in order to feel valued. Movies are great for escapism but when the credits roll the real world still awaits outside the swing doors of life.

We should first of all therefore look within. "Easier said than done, of course" I hear you say, which is true. One of the biggest barriers to overcome, for men as well as women, but predominantly female leaders, is ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ Not some evil super villain, although perhaps it is a form of Kryptonite to many people. The fear of being exposed as either not capable in a role or not being deserving of being there, no matter how many qualifications or years they have spent to achieve that position, is all too real in many people. It can be just as pertinent in a first job as it is after twenty years in a business, and no less debilitating.

So I wanted to use this blog to give some tips from my own experiences and feedback, to help you start to put those blocks in place to build up your emotional strength and self-worth to be successful yourselves.

Amy Cuddy is a leading expert on body language and posture. Returning to our movie theme she advocates that we should adopt a ‘Wonder Woman’ stance prior to a difficult meeting or possible confrontation. It potentially sends a signal to our brains that boosts our self-esteem, in a similar way that others believe if you make yourself smile you can feel instantly happier. Of course this may not work for everyone, nor have a long lasting effect. It can also trigger very strange looks if you do it in Starbucks or in the lobby of the client building under the watchful eyes of the security cameras, so timing is everything.

But while there is merit in these ideas, it has to be part of a wider change within us. It is vital to have confidence in your own ability and not to let it be shaken by others. Too often we listen to constructive feedback but can’t hear the positive comments because we become fixated on the negative ones. It is a common trait that is often born of what has become termed imposter syndrome but is quite simply a lack of self-confidence. Culture and practice does not help here as one of my male CEO colleagues attests to when discussing it recently, where many big corporations still pigeon hole female workers and pay lip service to equality. Sometimes it pays to recognise that deep set attitudes will not change overnight but have to be altered brick by brick.

In these moments and especially in meetings or appraisals for example, the key is to not react emotionally; taking time to reflect on what is said to you or about your work and then feedback constructively at a later time. Of course this is never easy in the moment when emotions are high, and the old adage of ‘act in haste repent at leisure’ can come back to haunt us. A common tip is to think about things but not speak them immediately, especially in electronic communications where the idea is to write a draft email including all the things you want to say but not send it. Then come back to it the next day or later on, and re-read it and revise it when the heat of the emotion has calmed down a little. How often do we hit send and then instantly regret it? Face to face this is much harder, of course, unless you have had time to prepare, and often we come out of meetings where we feel we have been criticised unfairly or undervalued, and find ourselves thinking “I wish I had said this or that”. Comments can come out of left field for which we are unprepared, and not everyone can think on their feet rationally and calmly under pressure. In those moments it is better to simply thank the person for their opinion and then later on go back to them with a constructive response, having looked into it and reflected on it more.

Finally, not being envious of other people's success, especially when you have helped them along the way is an important skill to master. If you do not care who gets the credit you can be a huge help to a lot of people, and in time it should become obvious to everyone where the source of the success comes from. Every hero needs a good sidekick, but every sidekick can ultimately be a hero. Of course everyone will have stories of when they have come up with good ideas that their bosses took credit for, or when they have been overlooked for their part in a success story. But if this does not matter to us, if we feel confident regardless of what others do and say, and can grow despite it, we will be successful. People that live for praise and exist by putting other people down are fooling no one but themselves ultimately.

We have to believe inside that we deserve to be where we are, and to achieve what we have achieved. But we also have to understand that we cannot hold a belief that society owes us anything and instead make our own destinies, and likewise complain that nothing will ever change without understanding that we can control our own reality.

That’s the thing about Lego. You can follow the instructions and come up with something that is expected and matches the picture on the box, and that might be interesting in the short term. Or we can just take those bricks and build something completely different. To let our imagination and ambition drive us forward beyond the boundaries and rules laid out for us and construct our own exciting futures.

And if you can do that, then as Jack Sparrow would say, “There’ll be no living with her after this.” Now give me that horizon. 

Posted by Dr Samantha Collins, CEO and founder of Aspire on Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Tags: female leaders, imposter syndrome, self confidence, lego, inequality

Building Blocks for the Girls

We have to believe inside that we deserve to be where we are, and to achieve what we have achieved. But we also have to understand that we cannot hold a belief that society owes us anything and instead make our own destinies, and likewise complain that nothing will ever change without understanding that we can control our own reality.


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