Five steps to a power shift: How women in business can ‘build their dream careers’

Kathy Caprino

Career and leadership coach Kathy Caprino. Photo: JAGstudios, Jacklyn Greenberg, 2019.

Kathy Caprino is a leading career and leadership coach in the US, who has spent years researching and interviewing people about the power gaps that affect women in the workplace.

In this extract from her new book, The Most Powerful You7 Brave Paths to Building the Career of Your Dreams, Caprino shares five steps for how to speak up more powerfully at work.

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In my work with professional women, and in my time as a therapist, I have seen why it remains deeply challenging for women to speak up assertively and how it impacts all aspects of their lives.

First, our culture still tends to think less of, and penalize, assertive women.  Gender bias is real, and there is true backlash against women who are assertive, strong and powerful.

Many studies have confirmed this.

New York Times bestselling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield (The Behavioral Science Guys) validated that gender bias in the workplace is real, finding that women’s perceived competency drops by 35 per cent and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they are judged as being “forceful” or “assertive”.

Compare this with the drops in competency and worth that men experience when being judged as forceful. Their competency drops by 22 per cent and their worth falls by $6,547.

This significant difference reveals a true gender bias that prevents women from succeeding fully in leadership and management roles where assertiveness is a crucial behaviour.

In our society, both men and women have embraced an idea of what a “feminine” presence needs to look and sound like, and most of us understand what that is. It is weak, vulnerable, accommodating, empathic, pleasing, and malleable. It is not assertive, forceful, strong and commanding. But we cannot give in to this outmoded gender prescription. It’s so important that we be authentic and speak powerfully about our truth and our beliefs and values.

Our beliefs and behaviours around our communication emerged from how we grew up and were shaped. Everything that you experienced as you were developing as a person, individuating from your parents, and asserting your boundaries as a child, teen, and in early adult life has affected you and is within you now. What happened then has left an indelible mark on you.

Creating your power shift

To help you take new steps to learn to speak up more powerfully for yourself, and advocate for your own needs, values, and wishes, below are key finding brave steps to begin to engage in today.

1. Examine what you learned in childhood

If you struggle at all with speaking up, take some time this week to examine closely what you learned in childhood about how safe it was to speak up for yourself.

Ask yourself: ‘What do I remember about how it went when I said to my authority figures “No, I don’t agree with you,” or “Don’t do that to me.”

Whenever you have a power challenge, stop and ask yourself ‘How old is this feeling?’ Do your best to get to the root of the issue, because only then can you stop wasting time and energy wondering ‘why is this happening?’ and finally focus on changing it.

If you are in touch with yourself and your feelings, you’ll most likely remember some pivotal emotional moments tied to why you feel scared or reluctant to speak up and assert yourself.

Maybe it went OK at the time, but later you were somehow punished or told that ‘good girls don’t do that’. Or maybe it went terribly wrong in the moment. Perhaps you got hit or were ridiculed. Perhaps you were laughed at and told you were stupid to think or feel as you did.

Sit with it and let yourself remember all the emotions and sensations, and just be with that pain and hurt.

Remember, as children, we don’t have the maturity or coping abilities to deal with these challenges as we would in adulthood. Experiences like these were scary and made you feel alone and frightened in the world. And you internalized them.

Think about what you learned about speaking up and how you were treated when you tried to assert and defend your boundaries. 

Ask yourself these questions.

  • ‘Did I have strong role models for effective, empowered communication?’
  • ‘Did my mother speak in an empowered way? My father? How did they treat each other?’
  • ‘How did the people around me (including my teachers, relatives, and other authority figures) act when others spoke up for their rights and their boundaries? How about my siblings?’
  • ‘Who did it well? Who didn’t do it well? What happened when they tried?’
  • ‘How did gender play into who had the power and authority in my family and life? What did I hear from my parents and other authority figures about women outside my family who were strong, wealthy, competent, and leaders in business, religious life, or the community?’
  • ‘Was I shut down, punished or ridiculed when I challenged my parents or authority figures?’

Then think about how all this affects you today.

If you feel that there was suppression in your childhood, read on for how to move forward to address and heal that.

2. Get very clear about what you need to say, and choose just one tough conversation you need to engage in this week, and have it

Decide on the one most important thing you need to say this month and to whom, and plan for it. Start with the person who is violating your boundaries or disrespecting you most.

What do you need to say ‘no!’ to today?

Or think about the conversation that you need to have that will move you forward the most in your work. Perhaps it’s a conversation with your boss about why you feel you deserve a promotion, sharing your well-thought case for that.

Start by committing to having the most pivotal conversation you need to have. But before you do, realize that the process of building our boundaries and learning to speak up for ourselves ‘perturbs the system’, meaning others can get upset by this because they’re used to you not pushing back. So before you do this, get very clear about what you want to say, and manage your emotions as best you can.

Have a mentor or a coach or friend role-play this with you. Videotape it and watch yourself to see where you’re demonstrating fear and discomfort in asserting yourself. Keep working on this until you can say the words you need to say without flinching, second-guessing or backpedalling.

After you get used to standing up for yourself once a week, do it twice. As you practice speaking out, you will become more comfortable with asking for what you deserve.

3. Start being the ‘highest, most authoritative version’ of yourself when you communicate

What happens to most of us in very tough interpersonal situations where what is true for us will upset the listener, is that, unfortunately, we become stressed, agitated, fearful, and often defensive.

When we’re flooded with emotion, our clarity and balance fly out the window. We lose our power and self-assuredness.

Someone once wrote: “You can say anything when you say it with love in your heart.” There’s great truth in that.

Say what needs to be said, but don’t do it from a frail, defensive ego or with harshness, but with strength, compassion, and calmness.

Embrace becoming the highest version of yourself starting today. By that I mean: rise above pettiness, egotism, defensiveness, and hypersensitivity and start embodying what it looks like to be the best and strongest version of who you want to be in the world. 

When you can embody your highest and best ideals and characteristics from a place of self-respect and self-appreciation, while respecting others, then you can be far more successful at having these powerful conversations because you’re marshalling all your internal resources to achieve a successful outcome. And it will go much better for both parties when you do.

4. Get hip to the nature of the ecosystem and individuals you’re dealing with

Before you communicate and speak up for yourself, you need to understand exactly who and what you’re dealing with and make your plans accordingly. Whether it’s your family, workplace, or another system, you have to understand your ecosystem.

For instance, what is the culture of your organisation? Does it foster trust, openness, and transparency, or is everyone hiding, pretending, and backstabbing? How does your company treat people who speak their minds powerfully? How do the leaders and managers feel about others speaking up about tough issues? How do they feel about women? Are there gender biases and other forms of discrimination at work?

Also, assess clearly the personality and behaviour of the individuals you have to deal with.

Are they irrational or rational? Can they be reasoned with and can a compromise be reached? Is there a power dynamic that you have to navigate effectively through?

For example, if you’re dealing with a manager who has narcissistic personality disorder, you need to speak up in a different way than you would with a healthy, highly-functioning individual. Directly challenging a narcissist usually ends very badly for the challenger. If your boss is a bully, get neutral, outside support to help you navigate through this situation.

5. Prepare for the consequences

Many people resist speaking up for themselves because they dislike or are afraid of angering others.

Often, parents aren’t as authoritative as they need to be for this exact reason — they’re afraid their children will be mad at them.

The same is true of many managers. They let problems continue without effectively addressing them.

But those fears make us weaker and more ineffective in our roles and relationships. Damage can be done if we’re not taking on the challenges of our lives in empowered, straight-forward ways.

If you’re striving all the time to make others happy, then you’re most likely not making yourself happy, and you’re not saying and doing what needs to be done to live a successful, fulfilling life.

If you feel compelled every day to do more than is necessary, appropriate, and healthy and get an A+ in all of it, you’re suffering from ‘perfectionist over-functioning’ and it’s damaging to your life.

If you over-function, then others around you will under-function and avoid doing their share.

In short, you can’t be strong and empowered, and also ensure that everyone is pleased with you every minute. It’s not possible, and it’s a goal that will keep you from a happier life and career.

Find the courage to speak up so you can honour your own boundaries, clarify and change what is not acceptable to you, and start living a happier, healthier, more empowered life.

This is an extract from The Most Powerful You by Kathy Caprino, RRP $29.99.

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