I recently attended two different major industry conferences, both of which had a turnout of a couple thousand people. To say I represented the minority in attendance as a young female is an understatement. Women under the age of 35 actually represented less than 2% of the attendees.
I normally don't mind the role of standing out and doing my best to represent women as a force to be reckoned with in business. After all, we're just as intelligent and capable as the men standing next to us. But something was different about the conference kick-off dinner. For the first time in my entire career, I felt defensive. I was defensive of my female status and my professional position. I sat down at the table and was surrounded by men ranging 10 to 40 years my senior and they looked at me wide-eyed and confused. I can only imagine they were thinking something along the lines of "I can't wait to look for her hot pink Barbie corvette in the valet lot." I knew within two minutes of conversation that the next hour and a half would be a mix of silently sitting there, listening to their banter about their latest deals, selecting moments to contribute with confidence to the conversation, and then prepare for the spit to fly right back at me. And that's exactly what happened.
As I attended the meeting the next day, I was a bit more demure when walking into the breakfast room. I didn't sleep well the night before and wasn't in the mood to spend an entire day defending my right to be there. Much to my surprise, I spent both breakfast and lunch visiting with industry professionals that were warm and respectful. By the end of the day I was standing a bit taller, my eyes were once again smiling, and I had a handful of new colleagues that I am sure will be considered friends in the years to come.
Regardless of whether or not we are in a "male-dominated industry," that inevitable question will always be relevant to young, and especially somewhat attractive, females. "Which is my bigger asset when it comes to getting noticed; my blouse or my brain?" To command respect, there is no doubt that intelligence and class will reign supreme. But what about that all important first impression? Is he approaching me, talking to me, expressing interest in working with me because of my blouse or my brain?
I am not an ultra-feminist as I believe that our society has come a long way in not only accepting women in business, but also promoting and encouraging women to pursue the same opportunities and dreams as men. But like anything else in life, there are always exceptions. At that dinner table, I met an exception (or two or three) and it took my breath away; a real kick to the gut. The next morning, however, I was surrounded by intelligent men and women that helped me build back the confidence that makes me believe I have worked hard and earned my place in the boardroom.
We can't control or avoid the exceptions, but we can take a stand to not be one. We need to lift each other up with words of encouragement, respect, and acknowledgement. I will continue to face the "blouse versus brain" conundrum in my career, but I must remember that for each exception there will be another colleague willing to look me in the eye with respect instead of looking right past me.
Images courtesy of Beak.biz, Dollgenie.comRead more of Brittany’s musings on life, love and career by clicking here.