Dr. Mary Reilly sometimes gets emotional on the job. But the emergency physician also knows how to turn it off.
“In the middle of a ‘code,’ I can’t be breaking down in tears,” said Reilly, who works with Indianapolis-based St. Vincent Emergency Physicians Inc. “I put a wall up in some situations and try not to think about these people as people. That’s the only way emotionally I can get through [it].”
Reilly is among the many women who’ve learned how to be tough enough to survive in a traditionally male-dominated profession. And since much of the business world is still dominated by men, women in most fields are recognizing they may need to get tougher-mentally, physically and/or emotionally-to compete.
The first step for some women may be recognizing how they reveal their weaknesses.
Some women are not assertive enough in tooting their own horn, Reilly said. “If people don’t know what a good job you’re doing, you can’t get ahead.”
Women sometimes back down too easily, said Melissa Proffitt Reese, a managing partner with the Indianapolis-based Ice Miller law firm. “When you’re in a committee room having a dialogue with mostly men, and the men are of one mind on an issue, I’ve seen women not feel confident enough in themselves and their opinions to stand their ground.”
Sometimes it’s the little things, such as speaking in a high voice or rambling on, said Jeanette Shallop, an executive coach with her own local firm, Change Strategies. “The guy next to her says it louder and in shorter terms, and people get it.”
Appearance also counts. Sexy clothes do not belong in the workplace, said Debra Pestrak, author of “Playing With the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business.” That means tight blouses, short skirts-“anything that brings attention to the fact you’re a woman instead of an employee or manager.”
One of the biggest mistakes women make is when they present an idea and focus first on how it will benefit the employees rather than how it will affect the bottom line, Pestrak said.
Women also tend to rescue, Shallop said. “We want to have everyone feel OK, so we rescue somebody weak across the table or somebody who just blew a stack. We’ll go over and say, ‘Are you OK?’ Rescuing is not a strong position to be in. It’s saying, ‘I want to nurture you, save you.’ People don’t want to be rescued.”
Some things women are known for, such as being intuitive or building consensus, may work against them. “[Consensus building] could be construed as being non-decisive, when you’re really trying to understand all sides of an issue and then make a decision from there,” said Cathy Langham, president of Langham, a locally based transportation-logistics firm.
So how can women ensure they’ll be tough enough to succeed?
“Women need to have a high sense of self-worth and integrity, and just compete with that in mind,” Langham said. “Many times in environments where I’m not comfortable, I will get too much in my head about something and worry. I think the best solution is to get out of your head and get involved in solving the problem, and not worry about ‘Is my answer stupid?'”
Coach Shallop recommends getting feedback from someone-your boss, a mentor, a colleague you’re not competing with, a coach, a friend-on how you come across in various settings. That person can then offer analysis and advice.
“What’s worked the most for me is to be over-prepared,” she said, “not only in content, but also for all the things that could happen in a group that could blow what I’m trying to get done apart.”
Lawyer Reese said women sometimes have less self-confidence, so they over-prepare-and that serves them well. “It’s hard to dispute facts,” she said. “Men tend to generalize-speak in broad-brush strokes-and women can make their point by really gathering facts to argue their point.”
Race car driver Lyn St. James has come up with her own system for ensuring a strong performance. She calls it her A.C.T. model, which stands for achievement, compare and talk.
We all have days when we operate at our best, St. James said, so the first step is to identify certain standards of achievement that made that day a success-what you ate, how much sleep you got, etc. Then compare your performance each day to those standards, and finally, talk yourself into that top level of achievement. “You work toward being perfect every day, so on the day that it really counts, it just flows,” she said.
“When I’m in a business meeting and start to feel emotionally like I’m caving in, I can stop that with my self-talk and say, ‘No, I have to be strong here.’ I can call it up, almost like a knee-jerk reaction,” said St. James, who focuses most of her time now on the Lyn St. James Foundation, a not-for-profit educational organization.
There are different expectations for women, author Pestrak said, so they have to work harder than men. “I meet young women who think this doesn’t exist in the business world, but that’s not true. Women have to adapt, not change who they are.”
Pestrak suggested some ways women can adapt: laugh it off when men cuss, don’t take things they say personally and don’t engage in catty behavior. “Women who present themselves in the workplace as a cohort instead of as a woman are the ones who are successful.”
Having the proper balance between your work and personal lives can make you stronger on the job, said Kathy Bohley Hubbard, an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis School of Business. “The emotional breakdown women are thought to have at work is really due to a lack of balance and a lot of stress.”
One of the most important things women can do to combat this is to simply say no-and not feel guilty about it, Hubbard said. “Have your priorities set straight, and don’t apologize for what your priorities might be. The No. 1 key is finding [an employer] that fits your values and priorities.”
When it comes to keeping emotions in check, St. James said the best way is to immediately try to put yourself in the other person’s position. “Take a moment to try to figure it out. It diverts your attention away from just yourself, helps clear your head and does dilute the emotional activity. And you end up gaining insight in the process.”
When someone confronts Langham, rather than getting upset and taking it personally, she tries to push that thought away and focus on what’s best for the organization.
Reese tries to digest information before reacting. “If I sit on something for 24 hours, I respond in a much more constructive way and focus on the merits of the issue as opposed to my emotional reaction,” she said.
Many of the women interviewed for this article said being tough isn’t always the best approach.
“I think it’s more important for [women] to be themselves and maybe bring a softer side to the work force,” professor Hubbard said. “I think a work force that doesn’t have that softer side is going to be weakened, because some clients want a softer approach.”
Trying to change yourself can actually be counterproductive, St. James found. “Earlier in my career as a race car driver, some of my crew guys got to know me well and started calling me ‘mom,’ because I cared about whether they were eating enough, sleeping enough,” she said. But she began to curb that behavior because she was afraid the team would think she was doing it just because she’s a woman.
“Then I got some psychological testing to help improve my performance, and they discovered I needed to engage my team more in my personal goals and be more interactive with my team. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve not been doing that because it would appear I was soft,’ when in fact I was leaving something on the table, because I wasn’t engaging them. I was holding back something that was important to the team.”
Giving patients a shoulder to cry on might be considered a weakness by some, but not Dr. Reilly. She recalled treating a man on a non-emergency basis recently, and they got to talking about his ill son, who was the same age as one of her children. They both got emotional, and the patient appreciated that she shared her emotions, saying he didn’t think a male doctor would have.
“Women and the way we approach interpersonal relationships at work may be different from men, but that shouldn’t necessarily be considered a weakness,” Reilly said. “We shouldn’t necessarily bow to the male way of doing things, because it’s not always the best way, and women can bring some things to the workplace that are better.”