Young women in the workplace: A timeless story of power.

“Project your personal power” is a phrase I heard often while working towards my Master’s degree last year.  It was usually in the form of well-intentioned advice from a mentor or a colleague.  While well-intentioned, it was also somehow deprecating, prophesy-fulfilling advice.  It made me think about the way people perceive me in a professional setting.  Is there a reason my mentors keep telling me to “project my personal power?”  When I speak, am I not being taken seriously?

I recently presented my research on ChatSalud at the mHealth Summit in Washington, DC.  The panel was about using human-centered design for mobile health (mHealth) projects in low- and middle-income countries. The panel was well-attended and the panelists were engaging and qualified.  We were a panel of young women working in technology for health.

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My panel. I’m the one with the light pink blazer. Meredith, my VaxTrac colleague, is the one speaking at the podium.

Later that day, my friend grabbed my cheek.

–“See, you have them too,” she said.

–“What do I have?”

–“Puffy cheeks. We were talking about how puffy cheeks make us look young.”

She filled me in on the conversation she and a colleague were having.  I should interject by mentioning that both women having this conversation are exceptionally accomplished in their own right- one is finishing her Master’s degree, winning an award along the way that recognized her outstanding commitment to public service, and the other is a registered nurse, computer scientist and PhD.  Both of these very accomplished young women were talking about how difficult it is to be heard during professional meetings.  They said they feel as if they need to get up on their soap box to make sure that their voices are taken into consideration.

Having just finished my panel, I went from feeling confident and strong to feeling self-conscious.  I suddenly became very aware of how I must look to the world– that I had decided to wear my hair down that day, rather than up, and that I had decided to wear a dress, rather than a suit.  All of this makes me look young.  I began to wonder if anyone had heard what I said during the panel at all.  And if they had, did they respect what I had to say as a professional?

The next day I wore my hair up and put on a power suit.  No one will call me young and get away with it.

I’m ultra sensitive to how young women are perceived in the workplace because I’ve encountered this over and over again.  I went through an interview process several months ago with a not-to-be-named organization.  I was told I was one of two finalists and I’d hear back in a couple days.  Two weeks later they told me they were interviewing more candidates.  About a month later I heard through the grapevine from a prominent employee there that I wasn’t hired because HR said I was too young.

Even on my own projects where my male colleague and I call the shots, I’m sometimes left off of e-mails. People sometimes misspeak and say that certain directives come from him rather than from us.  I feel like I’m constantly standing on a hill waving my hands in the air shouting, “Hey guys! I’m here!” What I should be doing is standing on a chair in the conference room, arms folded, power suit on, making it impossible for people to think my opinions matter less than that of my male colleagues.

And this is the image that I try to portray.  I make a conscious effort every day to “project my personal power,” but when I’m undermined, or when I’m called out on looking young, it’s like I’ve gone five steps forward and then am forced to take two steps backwards again.

I have male colleagues that never confront this issue of appearing young. When they talk, people listen.  I don’t know if it’s the height, the tweed jackets, or the confidence they’ve gleaned from growing up male, but I’ve seen it in the same way that I’ve seen young women overlooked and undervalued.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I read an article yesterday about the 25 most influential Washington women under 35 years old.  I was so happy to read about women who simply don’t give a damn if the world thinks they’re too young. They’re out there running think tanks, passing legislation, and paving the way for more young women to step up and demand the respect they deserve.  There’s no reason to think you’re too young for a task.  If you’re capable, stand up and do it.  Eventually, the world will listen.

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