By:  M. Lisa Shasteen, Contributor to CEO Effectiveness

woman-281474_1280 Dr. Anton’s article on women’s equality resonated for me, but in a backward way.  I grew up in Oklahoma with parents who were very active in civil rights and international organizations.  They lived their belief in the equality and dignity of each person.   I was surrounded by people of all types, educational levels, and ethnicities.  That seems funny in a place like Oklahoma, which is not known for its cosmopolitan flair, but it’s true.

I never felt discriminated against.  My parents told me I could do anything I desired.  I had no reason to believe that was untrue.  Though I knew boys might be different from me and might do some things better than me, I never felt less capable because I was a girl.  I knew there were things they did better, and things I did better.  No problem.  That was my early mental model or the “truth” that I “knew”.

A bit later, I remember my mother speaking passionately with friends about how women should be more assertive or how women were treated unfairly.  Gloria Steinem was gaining popularity, and there were rallies where women were burning their bras, which I found a bit pointless and, quite frankly, embarrassing.   I really could not figure out why my mother – and these women – were so passionate about women’s equality – or what bras had to do with it.  Inequality had never affected my world.  Of course everyone was equal!  What was the big deal?  Mom would get so frustrated with me that I could not see her point.

Later in life, I went to work in an industry where successful males outnumbered females significantly.  No problem.  I could learn from anyone.  Male peers were given learning opportunities and picked for choice projects a bit more often.  They would share information with one another, but I always seemed to find out about things by accident.  I had so much to give but no takers.  As an over-achiever, I simply tried harder to prove myself and fit in – to no avail.  I blamed myself for being deficient and still didn’t really understand any of this (because none of it fit into my early mental model), until I dyed my hair.  Yep.  That was the turning point.

When I became blonde, I was suddenly on the A-team.  I was included, not because of my brain, but because of my hair.  Nothing else had changed.  My colleagues were kinder to me and included me more. What I realized is that colleagues had their own mental models, and if I didn’t conform to the role they perceived me in, I was going nowhere.  In fact, the hair thing was simply a door-opener.  I still had to prove myself.  I had the same abilities.  I was just noticed now.

I wished that I had had a boss early-on who had seen that core person inside me – a loyal worker who cared deeply about people and wanted to help others.  Since then, I have learned that women are sometimes less assertive than men, which might prevent them from speaking up.  Leaders who understand themselves understand this point.  They purposefully meet women from the inside out, empathize with their struggles, celebrate their passions, and help them develop the confidence to explore and make their own profound contributions. In return, those leaders are rewarded with deep loyalty and a truly engaged workforce with a resilience to be envied.