Women Entrepreneurs: Managing Perceptions, Managing Guilt
I have a rule that I will do my best to meet with any woman who hasquestions about how I got to where I am. I am happy to serve as a soundingboard for a woman as she tries to figure out how to find a job, switchcareers, or most especially -- because I am an entrepreneur -- start her owncompany.
When I launched Net Daemons Associates Inc. seven years ago, I approached my venture as one being run by an entrepreneur rather than by a female entrepreneur. But that is where things got
"I've made a personal pact with my guilt: if I am doing what I have committed myself to do, I am permitted to let the guilt go."
So I know that for women, in particular, role models are important, and I know that helping people recognize their dreams is important. I also know that being a woman in a largely male world can be daunting, and I think it's important to give women a hand up.
Of course, I've been asked about this issue. When I am, I have to sayhonestly that while mine hasn't been an easy path, I haven't spent too muchtime saying, "If I were a guy, it would be different." In starting abusiness, there are huge risks and rewards. For a female starting abusiness, there are some unique risks and stresses that a man will neverface -- on the job, at home, and in those private moments with herself.
When women ask what I have learned from my experiences, I tell them that Ihave learned to manage age-old perceptions at work, layers of guilt at home,and something a lot deeper within myself. Here's what I mean by all of this.
Society has a lot of control over what people perceive as the right job orthe wrong job for anyone. This is especially true for women entrepreneurs.It's assumed that men will be in control positions and that women will not.And when it comes to control positions, there's nothing like building acompany from the ground up.
It's also assumed that a woman will acquiesce to the home pressures,limiting her ability to be a "really hard worker," 100% invested,and on board, all of which entrepreneurs must be. Women are supposed to besoft and quiet, friendly and supportive, negotiators and arbitrators duringconflicts, and generally "people people."
Be forewarned: this is a battle you cannot win. Unfortunately, there isn'ta lot you can do to change major preformed perceptions borne out ofhundreds of years of observations. While none may be true for every woman,and many may be true for men, it's not to your advantage to "fight" theperceptions.
What I've found works best is to understand who you are and how you work,and then to analyze how you fit or don't fit with current stereotypes.Figuring out where you are in and out of sync with a stereotype allows youto be more in control of your responses to people's perceptions. It enablesyou to set expectations for people in advance, so they don't have theopportunity to apply an inappropriate stereotype. In short, it allows you tomanage the situation.
This, no doubt, is "genderless" advice. But while it is a good thing fora man to do, it is a necessity for a woman.
If you are married, role-playing issues are very important to understand.As a business owner, you are probably in a situation where your job has toppriority. If these issues aren't monitored and understood, a number ofproblems may arise.
I have had to focus time and energy into understanding role reversals,which I consider intriguing, exciting, and very challenging. Currently, myhusband is at home full-time, and I work full-time. Finding other people whoare in similar situations has been important for both of us. With children,it's also important that we help them understand how their family situationdiffers from, and is similar to, that of their peers. Be prepared for thisto be a large issue that never goes away.
One of the hardest and most perplexing issues for me is guilt. Where doesthe guilt come from when I am away from home (as I am so often), when Idon't see my two young sons as much as I'd like, or when I haven't spent anytime beyond "hello" and "goodbye" with my husband? Does it come from me? Is itbeing imposed by my children? My husband? Work? The outside world?
Of course, this guilt comes from a mix of sources. The guilt, and women'sunique emotional responses to the guilt, are not likely to go away. As withmisconceptions about women's on-the-job role, guilt is something a womancan't really fight.
I've made a personal pact with my guilt: if I am doing what I havecommitted myself to do, I am permitted to let the guilt go. It is a contract thatI must constantly monitor, forever pushing away the guilt. It helps that Ihave set strong guidelines. I attend all of my children's events, I don'tusually work weekends, and when I travel, I call home at bedtime and bringgifts for each family member. Dad was added at the boys' request.
As a mother and wife, I feel there are more expectations about what time athome means. When I am home, a lot of "wife duties" are still mine,including follow-ups to invitations, clothes shopping, communications,party coordination, gift buying, and card sending. I also believe thatchildren understand very quickly that time at home for mothers is differentfrom that for fathers. As a result, I end up with a lot of responsibilities both athome and at work, and accept them readily, as a mother and as an entrepreneur.
On the home front, what works is this: accept that there are differences.It helps to consider that, these days, if you were a man, you would likelychoose to be a " modern man" and live the same way.
As a female entrepreneur, you'll also have to confront the biggest demon ofthem all: yourself. I've found that I need to watch out for what's beencalled the "Cinderella Complex." This concerns a woman's tendency toassociate her success not with her ability but with "magic." Statementssuch as, "I won that $1 million bid, but I don't know how -- it must have beenmy purple suit and my horoscope," and "I don't know how I can do quantumphysics, my homework just comes out of my pencil correctly when I sit down todo it," are examples of this syndrome.
The Cinderella Complex can come and go. Your job is to eliminate it, orat least keep it in check. Make no mistake, if you are a successful femaleentrepreneur, it is because you have applied hard work and lots of time tothe job. It isn't because someone "just likes me," or the stars were alignedin a certain way, or because of good luck. It is because of you and yourefforts.
So here are some thoughts to leave with that woman who comes to me for support and advice:
- As the founder of the company, I love to answer the phone and see howpeople treat me as the receptionist. I take it as an opportunity to eitherreinforce good behavior or demonstrate to people their bad behavior. And yes, I've added CEO to my business card so that people will believe thatI am the CEO.
- As an entrepreneurial wife and mother, I've had clients make wonderfulexceptions for me, and I only wish this were true of their handling of menas well. I like it that my sons love having their dad at home.
- As for myself, I think I've benefited from the way in which society has raisedwomen to be communicators and listeners, negotiators and arbitrators, and,well, you know the litany as well as I do. Since these traits have beenfoisted on girls over their being aggressive, risky, rambunctious, andexplorer types, I feel I can use the "feminine" skills to my advantagewhile I also pursue being aggressive, risky, rambunctious, and an explorer.
Jennifer Lawton is senior vice president of consulting and technology at Interliant Inc., an Internet hosting company formerly called Sage Networks Inc. She also serves as vice president of strategic relations on the board of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization. Previously, Lawton was CEO of Net Daemons Associates Inc., a computer-networking and consulting firm that she cofounded in 1991.
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