Like walking a tightropeIt’s rarely a conscious choice for women at work but the truth is, we are often walking a tightrope.

Because we don’t realise this we too often find ourselves caught up with the rope around our ankles (or sometimes our necks) going nowhere fast.

So what is this challenge that we fail to see?

The choice is: warmth or competence – to be liked or to be perceived as competent and respected for our skills. In most situations these are the unconscious evaluations made about us by the people we meet.

It will come as no surprise to you that, in general, women are expected to be warm… to be good at relationships, to be caring, to be nice. The presumption for men by default is that they will be competent, skilled, good at doing stuff.

The more you fulfil expectations at one end of this tightrope, the less you are expected to also demonstrate the other. So a woman who is caring and generous is rarely valued equally for her technical contributions to a project. Similarly, a male colleague who is highly technically competent is rarely expected to be nice with it! If he’s a genius and a nerdy geek with poor communication skills, well he still makes a great contribution.

And a woman who breaks these expectations by obviously making significant technical contributions is frequently judged harshly about her “niceness”. She’s good, yes, but she’s cold… and a woman who isn’t nice is hardly a woman at all.

And these are generalisations and stereotypes but the reason they are so persistent is because they are unconscious and widespread.

So how does a woman walk this tightrope? We have a few different choices.

We can consciously choose to switch between the two behaviours, adding niceness to the “bank account” to balance out the times when we choose to consciously “parade” or celebrate our competence.

Then we need to make sure that our competence is acknowledged and accepted on those occasions. It’s all too easy for our contributions to be missed, undervalued or even attributed to others.

This might look like a situation where we make a suggestion in a meeting yet our suggestion is, to all intents, ignored. What often happens is a polite acknowledgement before people more onto a different subject or a different person’s contribution. So don’t let this happen. We need to find a way to stop the conversation “Can we just take a moment here? I’d really appreciate some feedback on the suggestion I offered before we move on. Do you think we should do this?”.

In politely but definitely requesting that our suggestion is seriously considered we are making a stance about our competence.

It’s also great if our colleagues, female or male, will also be advocates for undervalued women. When you hear a woman make a suggestion that’s about to be ignored, again, politely make that request “Can we hold on just a minute. I’d like to hear that again before we move on… what did you suggest?”.

 The truth is that male or female we can be both warm and competent, nice and respected. We need to acknowledge and celebrate this. Don’t let our female colleagues be undervalued nor our male colleagues excused from developing good interpersonal skills.