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Every week, in addition to my Wednesday Bad Advice column featuring questions from you, the readers, I’ll be doing a Thursday advice column for fictional characters, celebrities, and anyone else who didn’t ask for it. If you have suggestions for characters or celebrities you’d like me to give Bad Advice to, send them to the email address above!
Dear Bad Advice,
I just joined a venture with an industrious, but quirky, group of people I barely know. They’re all from a very different culture than mine, much more confrontational and crude. On top of that, they even look a little different from me, so I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. A lot of them don’t like me, even though they asked me to join them for my special skills, and all of them push me around and make fun of me a lot. I’m sick of it and I wish I could just go home and be comfortable again. But a part of me also longs to complete this adventure and prove myself. I just don’t know if I can do it. Help!
– Lagging Baggins
This is going to sound like bad advice, but stop trying to fit in.
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 I 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.
I learned something else: that the others — the ones who did genuinely look down on me, professionally, because I was a woman — were brick walls that I didn’t need to throw myself against.
These people were incapable or unwilling to be “converted” from their view of me. So nothing I tried to do was going to impress them anyway (at least, not as much as I felt I deserved) and it was useless to try to correct them on their point of view. Instead of trying to get through to them, I just went around them.
Very few professions are so narrow and limited that you couldn’t get around someone as unpleasant as that. Impress the people you are capable of impressing, doing the things that you’re best at doing. Eventually you’ll impress someone who will enable you to move forward in your career (or, to help you gain acceptance among the dwarves) despite the few hold-outs who simply will never accept a hobbit in their midst.
But, I also learned one final thing: among those who remained unimpressed by me, despite all the ways I’d demonstrated my abilities, most of those were not people who disdained me for being a woman; they were just the kind of people who are impossible to impress. So don’t always assume that people don’t like you because you’re a hobbit. Some people just don’t like anybody. And you can put them in the brick wall category — don’t pummel yourself against that immovable object.
Diversity goes both ways. If you find yourself in the minority in a situation, don’t just expect others to learn from, accept, and adapt to you; try to learn from, accept, and adapt to them, too. So don’t just expect the dwarves to stop for elevensies and have perfect table manners; take some time to learn about their habits and customs, too. And when you want them to accommodate you, don’t make it a whiny demand — just ask nicely and explain why it’s important to you. Nope, not everyone will stop making fun of you. But some people will never stop making fun of you. At least give the others a chance to see your best side, instead of your whiny, downtrodden side.