Kindness in Action: Gender, Power, and Expectations

People in positions of power can do enormous damage when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use those gender expectations to wield power.

You can jump down to some thoughts on putting kindness in action to dispel that damage, or first read a few stories that help illustrate the point as a preface.

In my last year of graduate school, just as my own academic job search began, my department hired a new chair from another university. As with any year in recent memory, few schools were hiring in the humanities. Even landing interviews with “top” schools did little to make me optimistic in the face of tight competition and a shifting discipline that favored identity studies and non-canonical texts. After on-campus interviews, departments told me that my work wasn’t “political” enough. One department told me flat out they decided it would be better to hire a woman for diversity. I didn’t want to give up yet, however. I sought out my new chair for his advice.

I sat in the chair’s office, facing his desk and silhouette in the glare of sunlight from the enormous window behind him. I brought him up to speed with my job search, where I had interviewed, where I had call-backs. I asked for his insight. Sure, I could delay finishing my dissertation and stay another year, but how could I connect better with potential hirers? Some of the advice made perfect sense, if not seeming a bit opportunistic. I could pump out an article or two to appease shifting attitudes. I listened politely, willing to consider what I needed to do for professional survival. “But, you know,” he said with an oddly dead-eyed look, “you can’t get away with being so demure. It’s not suitable.”

“Ok, sure, well thanks for the input.” I scrambled my CV and papers into my bag and went out to meet some friends on the quad. They wondered why I had so little to say. One friend finally got the story out of me. “What an asshole,” everyone agreed.

But that’s not the point of the story. And that wasn’t the end of it; as I found out much later, the powerful mentor I had reached out to was actively undermining me on the job market. The word choice says it all. “Demure.” Not “reserved,” or “shy,” or “introverted.” And presented as something I was trying to “get away with.” I had been gender-bashed for not meeting his expectations for suitable male behavior. Beyond the casual slight of a callously chosen word, it stuck with me, became gossip, and harmed my career (where, that same year, I ended up getting a job after all, and left the profession for other reasons–a story for another time).

Fast-forward to some ten years later, and I’m in a senior position at a consulting firm, on my fifth promotion in as many years. In my annual performance review, my new manager talked about my strong performance, tripling the size of one of the firms largest accounts. “The problem is we all think you’re only doing it for yourself, not for the good of the firm.” I had toughened up a bit since my days in grad school, so I asked what that meant. What was the evidence for my performance having hidden motivations and what can I do differently to change perceptions? “Now you’re just being difficult. People think it’s hard to make a point with you. You come across as being kind of bitchy.” The discussion petered out quickly from there. Again, a seemingly casual word that spoke volumes. I was being held to account for some sort of invisible characteristic and again, gender-bashed with a mis-gendering term.

In hindsight, I’m perfectly happy to own “bitchiness” as a word used by people uncomfortable with my own form of toughness, and “demure” as my own way of listening attentively. In hindsight, these subtle gender-bashings only fueled my motivation and helped move me along to the journey I have taken since, a thriving company of my own, and a path that I make mine with my own ways of being intact. Without experiences like these, I would never have come to a point of focusing on advocacy for kindness in the workplace.

But, despite the good fortune I’ve had in the meantime, these words and moments show just how much damage people in positions of power can do when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use gender expectations to wield power. The dynamics of the presidential election this year further strengthen my awareness of the way gendered terms are used to level unfair judgment. And finally, I was inspired by a recent piece my long-time friend and colleague Carol Barash posted on LinkedIn, which triggered my thinking about gender, power, and self-empowerment.

As promised, after my long run-up to the topic, here are several kind things I recommend people do about the gendered misuse of power and judgment.

  • Be mindful of the words you use. It doesn’t matter whether you keep these words to yourself or use them in interactions. “He is so…, she is very…, you seem…” Fastidious, bossy, difficult, take your pick. Are these words that embed a gender stereotype? In my examples above, gender terms other than the gender I present were used, but stereotypes about men or women are often used to police a gap between what a person is doing and what is expected of them. Instead, you can pause, think about how else that label is used in other contexts, and why you perceive it here, and whether you should separate it from your expectations of gendered behavior.
  • Step back. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you are using gender to wield power, especially at first, but you can start even by observing and reflecting on how gender dynamics work between other people. Try it at the next meeting you attend. What are people saying and how are they interacting with each other? When are they open or closed to others’ input and how?
  • Refocus on outcomes. Sometimes, gendered labels are shorthand. Underneath them, you may have a concrete need for someone to change what they are doing. When you give feedback, the onus is on you to stake specifically and actionably what you are asking the recipient to do or do differently. In fact, that’s the only appropriate request. Instead of holding people accountable for your perception of them, be clear you are asking them to speak up more directly in meetings, with specific examples, or you are asking them to soften the way they assert themselves, with specific techniques. Don’t hang hidden, mysterious allegations over their heads.
  • Recognize it for what it is. If you ever feel gender-bashed, take a clear-eyed look at what happened and why. In the same way that you can think about the gender dimensions of your outward labels and judgments, you can think about whether words used to you or about you come from a someone wielding gender stereotypes, consciously or not, in order to exercise power. While you may not be able to “fix” it, you can at least not torment yourself trying to address feedback that cannot, maybe even purposefully cannot, be addressed.

7 Ways To Be Kind To Yourself and Get Unstuck

I’m late. I thought I would write a new piece on kindness in the workplace last month, and then this month, but until now, nothing. I found myself writing “kindness post” on my daily to-do list, each morning rewriting it, rewriting it, starring and circling it, but still, nothing. I needed a way to get unstuck.

Over time, the disappointment became louder than anything else I might have felt about the piece, the elusive piece, whose theme I kept failing to catch when looking at my values and experiences. Even though I moved it to my next day’s list again and again, the prospect that I ever could, or would, get it done receded. The tide of motivation went out, exposing all the dead fish and debris of dread and failing to meet my own expectations. I even questioned my resolve to keep up this project.

Today, however, is different. As I looked at my day ahead, at my desk, sunrise coloring the sky behind me, I realized that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t being kind to myself. I had fallen into the self-compassion trap. I had stopped giving myself credit for all the hard work I do for my clients, for my dedication to my partner, for the time I spend caring for my two cats, for making myself available to friends. Every time I thought about writing the now dreaded “kindness post,” I let the fact that I hadn’t yet written it become the focal point, eclipsing any thought or passion for the topic of kindness itself.

By some sudden grace (yes, I believe in it, even with no apparatus of faith behind it), forgiveness came. I forgave myself for not writing, I acknowledged the task for what it was, and I felt not obligation but gratitude for all the relationships and all the beings that had received my time in the interim. I allowed kindness to return, not as an imperative, but as a gift, a gift whose benefits I, too, share. That was the answer to help me get unstuck. By letting self-kindness in, I saw the very topic I needed to write about was kindness to oneself.

I hope my long preface sets the stage for the rest of this post, with 7 specific ways you can break through motivation blocks to help you get unstuck by being kind to yourself.

1. Take inventory.
When you have something undone hanging over your head, you can lose sight of all of the positive, constructive ways in which you spend your time. Make a list of ten valuable things you have done recently and recognize yourself for what it took to do them. Even the smallest things you do depend on your skills, your authentic self, and the ties you have in this world. You can easily take them for granted.

2. Take action.
While you may not be ready to pull out of the procrastination-guilt loop quite yet, you can help break up the logjam by doing kind things for others and by directing kind intentions to them. Offer to help a colleague, do something unexpected for your friends or family, or help a stranger. I don’t have a scientific explanation for why, but it does somehow clear your energy and open you to the task that’s haunting you.

3. Take a break.
You won’t get very far sitting and staring at a screen, or paper, or a workspace. If you stay stuck in a working context, you may find your level of anxiety increasing, to the extent that you lower the chances you will find a way to start or resume work. Instead, just walk away. Read something unrelated, or even take a literal walk to change your surroundings and allow serendipity to take over and motivate you.

4. Take a shower.
There’s a reason why the idea that your best ideas come to you in the shower has become a sort of cliche. A shower is a place to relax, take time to do something for yourself, and let yourself be both distracted an purposeful at the same time. In fact, numerous studies on brain chemistry and brain activity tie our mental state when showering to increased creativity and increased likelihood of mental breakthroughs.

5. Take a picture.
You can overcome obstacles to motivation by making efforts to be creative in another medium. Even if you don’t believe that you need creativity to get your looming tasks done, the act of creativity can help you look at your motivation differently and find ways to overcome it. You can use the camera on your phone to capture an unexpected angle in your office, in your home, or somewhere in your daily perspective. Look closely at it and open yourself up to seeing the world, and your responsibilities, from a new angle.

6. Take solace.
You’re not the first person to get stuck, and you won’t be the last. This is not the first time you’ve gotten stuck, and it won’t be the last. You can reflect on times when you have gotten stuck, and unstuck, in the past. Tell yourself the story of how it happened and how you eventually broke through. Ask people you trust and respect to tell you a story about a time when it happened to them. You’ll find those stories can heal, and overcome.

7. Take care.
You may find that you start to beat yourself up over an uncompleted task. It’s entirely natural, and often gets worse the more committed you are or the more accountable you feel. You can, however, forgive yourself for not doing something that you needed or expected to do. Just remember that you are more than your responsibilities. If you let yourself off the hook for this, chances are, you’ll stop writhing and start writing, or doing, or working, whatever it is that’s blocking you.

Apply these 7 techniques, or your own variants of them. You’ll make great progress, clear the way, and find that they help you get unstuck.