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Bad Advice for Hobbitses

What to do when you're smaller than everyone around you.

by
Hannah Sternberg

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July 11, 2013 - 4:00 pm

HOBBIT_2411622b

I’m no diversity expert, but I know what it feels like, in a professional setting, to be the only woman in an old boys club. Thoughts run through your head like Should I try to act like “the guys” to impress them? or Should I try to be more feminine so I’ll charm them? to Maybe I should crack a joke about being the only woman here and that’ll break the ice and then everything will be totally normal. Of course, this is also on top of all the generalized anxiety of feeling different, which is very difficult to articulate. And the pressure to prove myself — and to prove wrong all the people in the room who seem to think I can’t perform as well as a man.

Washington, DC, is full of old boys clubs, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience this situation. At first, I would often leave the meeting/networking event/interview feeling frustrated, discouraged, and outraged at the injustice of it all. I wanted to make everyone in the room who had made me feel bad about myself burn with shame. I wanted them to come crawling to me with apologies for their unfairness and validate my place in the professional world. Then I learned something.

I learned that a good number of the men in those rooms weren’t unimpressed with me because I was a woman. They were unimpressed with me because they’re unimpressed with anyone who hasn’t directly demonstrated their professional skills to them. I learned that I was being the unreasonable one by walking into those meetings/networking events/interviews with the feeling that I was entitled to their respect and admiration and trust just by showing up.

I wasn’t willing to admit to myself that, despite all great qualities that knew I possessed, I still had to prove myself to someone. So, I used my differences from the people around me as a mental shield – that must be the reason they don’t respect me; it couldn’t possibly be because I haven’t done much to earn their respect. You may, in fact, face a harder journey toward respect being the only hobbit in a troupe of dwarves; but whether you’re a dwarf or a hobbit, you still have to prove yourself.

And prove yourself by focusing on your strengths, instead of trying to be like everyone around you, or trying to make everyone around you act more like you. You may not be able to throw an axe with any accuracy (or at all) but you riddle your way out of any situation, and you’re an excellent thief. The dwarves make you feel insufficient because you’re trying to be a dwarf, and you’ll only ever be an insufficient dwarf. But you can be an excellent hobbit, and the dwarves worth impressing should notice.

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The takeaway: EVERYONE has to prove themselves; stop looking for excuses or appealing for special consideration because you attach the need to prove yourself to the way in which you are different. Those are not "differences" -- they are "distinctiveness". Viewed rightly they are not handicaps but assets to be leveraged in the proving of yourself. You are not there to hide your hobbitishness, but to prove the necessity of a hobbit on this mission, and thereby "prove yourself". Just as a female writer in a male publishing corral most show what special talents and perspectives come by having a woman on board, and thereby "prove herself". I am never as confident of the necessity, and the likelihood, of proving myself, than when everyone present notices there's "something different" about me. It is up to me how that difference is played, but make no mistake: It is a precious advantage. Vive la difference!
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