It was almost the time of year for the annual Leeds School of Business Sophomore Professionalism Summit, a mandatory networking event where students learn business etiquette and interact with local business professionals. Shy by nature, this event loomed over me like a storm cloud. Opting to push myself and make the most of the situation, I signed up for hands-on sessions focused on improving my interview skills. Determined to make a good impression, I walked into a mock-interview session with all the confidence I could muster and my resumé in hand.
The first few interviews went as expected; I discussed my career goals, strengths, and weaknesses and then asked for feedback. Suddenly, my final interview took an unexpected turn. The question posed to me, “what matters the most to you?”, caught me off guard. After a few moments of silence, I replied that my family and loved ones will always be my number one priority.
Immediately after I finished speaking, the interviewer told me that I should think of a different response to that question. Putting family first, she explained, is not something women should say in an interview if they want to be hired. Her face was expressionless as I stared at her quizzically. She continued telling me that women are already considered weaker and more sensitive than men, and emphasizing the importance of family only bolsters those stereotypes. In the male dominated tech industry, the women who embody the typical male stereotypes are more likely to get hired.
Being told that I must answer every question strategically rather than honestly made me feel a little nauseous. At first I felt defeated. I lacked experience and confidence, and started to think that my values and aspirations weren’t compatible with my dream career. I spent the rest of the day worrying that I wasn’t cut out for the tech industry, and even considered pursuing a different degree.
When I finally calmed down, I started to rethink the entire encounter. Rather than brush off her advice, I put myself in her shoes. Sometimes even subconsciously people stereotype others, and it would be foolish to think that stereotyping and favoritism doesn’t exist in the business world. Statistically speaking, even when women do have lucrative careers and high titles, they earn less then men; the wage gap is an undeniable reality. In her eyes, the only way to succeed in the tech industry as a woman is to transcend the institutional gender stereotypes and prove that women can be as intelligent and as strong as their male counterparts. That’s what she has to do to succeed professionally.
I spent weeks considering how to break through the high barriers to entry while still staying true to myself. I appreciate her advice, but I don’t think censoring myself is a viable solution. In fact, avoiding certain topics, words, or phrases to prevent unfavorable stereotypes will only perpetuate the problem. If we as a society truly want to break stereotypes and close the wage gap, people must be willing to challenge pre-existing gender norms and stereotypes, even if that requires having uncomfortable conversations. In that moment, I decided to become a business women who isn’t afraid to hold strong in her convictions despite nerves, potential negative consequences, or fear being stereotyped.
Big picture, I know advocating for myself isn’t the solution to this institutional problem. It is, however, a step in the right direction and a catalyst for the institutional reform I desperately want to be a part of. This experience helped me develop the strength and confidence to stay true to myself regardless of the circumstances, and my dream is inspire other women self-advocate as well. If more women start speaking up about the importance of family, institutional norms will shift. Women will no longer be bolstering gender stereotypes, they’ll be making a healthy work-life balance the new standard. The mock interviews I participated in at the Sophomore Professionalism Summit were brief encounters, but the experience as a whole ended changing the way I see the business world and the way I see myself.