I was the only woman in a Ph.D. lab with 50 male colleagues and a male professor. In a culture where sameness was valued, my graduate school experience was about assimilation, which means toning down the ways I came across as feminine. Hiding my true self and not taking the risk of sharing my values and honest perspective was what I thought I had to do to belong. This impacted the way I dressed, jeans and t-shirts with no jewelry, but more importantly, how I showed up. Even now, I sometimes find myself comparing degrees and accomplishments at social engagements to impress strangers, and forget to introduce myself as a mother, which is my most meaningful role.
In contrast, authenticity is suggested as one way for women to be more successful in STEM.1 Authenticity is defined here as looking, speaking, and acting similarly to how you would in a non-work setting. This study can’t differentiate whether one’s innate authenticity or being in a culture that fostered authenticity led to the success, so let’s reflect on both. Being authentic, instead of spending energy trying to be like others, allows you to apply that energy to different parts of your life. Considering intersectionality,2 many people would benefit from a work culture that is open to experiences beyond the straight white able-bodied man. Let’s create work environments where all people feel they can be themselves, and in the meantime, see if we can show up more authentically. Here are suggestions for doing so.
1. Fix bias, not women
I’m bothered by businesses that teach women how to be more decisive, assertive, and how to negotiate better. I’m not discouraging women from developing these skills, but I am concerned about the unspoken assumption that there is something wrong with women. I believe the issue lies with a culture that undervalues certain skills and traits typically associated with women. We should be rewarding all employees who use listening, empathy, and teamwork, to contribute positively to work outcomes.
2. Inspire allies for support
Reach out to colleagues and leaders who show an interest in creating a culture where people can be more authentic. “Women should always strive to maintain their sense of self, but it’s up to the people in the dominant culture to enact real change so it feels psychologically safe for them to do so.”3 If you find allies willing to engage, take time to help them improve your current work environment. Explain what feels safe for you at work, what does not, and why. If there are no allies and you don’t feel safe in your current environment, consider whether making a change would be in your best interest.
3. Practice being authentic
Join a group or club that represents what makes you unique, a place where you can really let your hair down and speak honestly about your experiences. There are many organizations or employee resource groups, which provide ways to engage with others who have a similar background. If you don’t have anywhere to be your whole self, hire a coach. A good coach will create a safe space for you to be fully authentic and explore the degree to which your workplace supports your authenticity. By practicing being your true self in any of these contexts, it becomes easier to do so in other situations.
The mistake I made in graduate school was that I perceived authenticity and belonging as a tradeoff. In fact, you must be authentic to truly belong. Now that I’m living a more authentic life, one where I have the confidence to speak honestly and live my values, I can see the true benefit. As you partner with colleagues, I encourage you to look for commonalities and help everyone appreciate the differences that each of you bring to the table.
Lara Kallander, Ph.D., MAPP, PCC is a leadership coach for women in STEM. She spent 18 years as a discovery chemist and leader in pharmaceuticals before realizing she could advocate for women in science more effectively as a coach. Now she helps women create their own definition of success and achieve it. Lara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or thrivingthroughadversitycoaching.com.
1. Jain-Link, P., & Kennedy, J. T. (2020) Wonder Women in STEM and the Companies That Champion Them Coqual.
2. Ramos, C. & Brassel, S. (2020). Intersectionality: When identities converge. Catalyst.
3. Hutto, C., (2022) Ways Women Work: How Assimilation Affects a Workday & What Allies Can Do About It InHerSight .