At the end of last year I noticed a big trend in media – to treat women as “smart girls” and emphasize that we do better academically than men. I am not sure what the purpose of this is but I do know it won’t help advance women in the workplace because it reinforces an old stereotype. That women aren’t action oriented achievers.
When we were in school we knew who the “smart girls” were. They sat in the front of the classroom, they got perfect grades and the teachers really liked them. They got into the college of their choice and graduated with honors. They got the best job offers. But that is where their success starts to end. They don’t go on to become the next great entrepreneur or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Academic success doesn’t translate to workplace success.
Our employers initially hire us because we have knowledge but they don’t pay us to regurgitate that knowledge. They expect us to apply our knowledge to develop skills and gain experience. They then expect us to then use our skills and experience to achieve the objectives.
The workplace is all about taking action, making things happen and delivering results that positively impact the bottom line.
In the workplace “smart girls” can struggle with workplace expectations because in school they were conditioned to believe there is one best or right answer. They get regular feedback as to whether or not they know the right answer. If they do, then they are validated and praised with gold stars, high grades, certificates and membership to elite clubs.
However, in the workplace, the academic “right” answer is seldom correct. The textbook answer has to be adapted to the current situation and environment. The “right” answer is something that is figured out and may not resemble the textbook answer at all.
Then even after you have the “right answer”, you learn that answer didn’t produce the A you expected. It got you a low B or a C. It may even turn out to earn you have F. So, you have to keep adapting and refining your answer if you want the A.
That is the workplace test. Are you the type of person who can stay in the arena and keep working the problem to get to the best solution? Are you the type of person who can take the B, C or the F and turn it into a B+ or even an A?
Being the “smart girl” in school isn’t good preparation for being in the workplace arena because it doesn’t teach you to take risks and think beyond the textbook. Being the “smart girl” is good preparation for being on the sidelines in the workplace.
“Smart girls” often discover their comfort zone puts them in support roles, especially communication-based support roles, where they train or write and speak about what the people in the arena are doing and accomplishing. In these roles they get to showcase how intelligent and articulate they are. They get the feedback and validation they want – “Good report,” or “Nice presentation.” But there is a danger that is always lurking out there. And you face it, it feels worse than getting an F.
Eventually the woman who is asked to speak and articulate on behalf of others will be asked in-depth questions she can’t answer. To know those answers requires the experience you only get from being in the arena. Giving the intelligent and articulate textbook answer that earned you praise in school, gets you skewered in the conference room.
You are labeled “Incompetent.”
Over the past few years the various media and academic outlets have joined forces to increase the emphasis on being the intelligent, articulate person. That works well in their world where they sell ideas so being articulate and sounding intelligent is important. The content of the idea they are selling may be right, wrong or total BS – it doesn’t matter because the aren’t in a business where they have to prove it works. It is like being a lawyer or on a debate team where you only have to sell a point of view and you score points for style.
The real business world isn’t a debate club.
In business if you are going to sell an idea, then you also have to deliver the results.
It is also trendy to be in a consulting firm – there is a prestige associated with the expertise of being a consultant. However, many consultant recommendations wind up in the trash can because they are textbook recommendations – they aren’t developed by in the arena and adapted to the current situation and environment.
If women are to advance in the workplace they must stop valuing being the “smart girl.” Women must spend several years in the arena of their industry – learning how it functions, taking risks, experiencing failure, experiencing achievement and learning to think on your feet to solve problems in the moment. Then you can leverage your advantage – intelligently articulating what you did, how you did it and the results you got. That is how we get promoted.
Empowered Women Are Smart to Get in the Arena.
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