As I've climbed the corporate ladder, I've had to redefine what authenticity means to me. If someone told a younger me that I couldn't make constant jokes or make every decision based on my gut or wear leggings and a t-shirt to meetings, I would have scoffed at the audacity of my employer. Changing my behaviors or appearance would make me an imposter, which is something we're taught to vehemently fight against. It wasn't until an executive coach shared with me that great growth can come from being flexible about what attributes we bring to the workplace that I realized authenticity isn't static. The journey toward it is a lifelong process and with every new position I've earned, I've had to push beyond my comfort zone (i.e., the behaviors above) and find a new version of my professional self. I have mixed feelings about this authenticity paradox. On one hand, I enjoy exploring what type of leader I can and want to be, but, on the other, I'm absolutely exhausted.
For someone who may not have had professional role models growing up, or didn't earn an MBA, or had an untraditional path into the business world, navigating how, when and where to bring pieces of your authentic self to work can be difficult. For women, it's even more arduous. And for women of color, the mental gymnastics required are staggering.
A few years ago, I read an article about how people who curse in the workplace are perceived as more intelligent and as having a higher degree of integrity. Well shit, sign me up! After learning this, I reflected on leaders I've worked with throughout my career who regularly swore and, yes, they were broadly viewed as sharp and honest and were all well-respected. There's something else they all had in common: they were all men. I dove deeper on the topic and in totally unsurprising news, swearing at work has the complete opposite effect for women. It's the good ol' double bind, or catch-22, that we all too often find ourselves in as women leaders. There's an expectation that we behave like the stereotypical male leader, but when we do, we're criticized for not being refined and nurturing. For those who have an expletive-filled vernacular, being hyperaware of when and how you bring that piece of you forward is important to growth.
Another "true self" factor in the workplace is physical appearance—like apparel and hair. I'm not talking about dress codes here, which are laden with bias, especially as they relate to people who are gender-nonconforming. I'm referring to what constitutes "casual" or "formal" or "appropriate" attire. This is true in the remote world as well. When men dress down, say in jeans and a t-shirt, it's assumed that they're burning the midnight oil or have entered into the elite stage of their career where casual clothes = reverence. On the contrary, when a woman wears a sweatshirt and high pony tail, it's assumed she was rushing to drop the kids off at school or was too exhausted to make an effort because of some other home-life-related issue.
As we inch toward gender equity in the workplace, the extra self-analysis and behavioral shifts required by women to navigate authenticity at work will hopefully lessen. But for now, we can focus on the positive growth that comes from having a malleable professional self.