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Hey Tech Ladies! Build Power by Untraining What Your Momma Gave You

Three Key Steps to Shift Helper Mentality to Build Success and Power

Why did I elect to be the professional glass filler at work?

Recently I was at a technology business event where I was the only woman. Everyone’s glasses were empty. I got up to fill them without even thinking about it. Then I found myself asking myself why I took on that role rather than any men at the table. My action surprised no one but me. But really? Here I am as a successful, awesome, and smart business person and I select the role of the glass filler. The glass filler is not who I want to be or the message I want to give anyone about my value. I have done a lot of personal work on my helper mentality, consciousness and personal power — but then I go on autopilot and become the server.

Where did my “glass filler” instinct come from? My mother worked in a male dominated industry, so the empowerment message was clearly there. When I got to the root of my automated glass filler behavior, it made a lot of sense.

The root of the training

When I was a kid there was an unspoken rule in my house. The women got up to clear the table and do the dishes. The men relaxed and talked. It was an unspoken tradition of the community I was brought up in but more importantly, it was training all of us. It was training the girls that we were born to be helpers and that our value was in doing the dishes for the house. It was training the boys that they had the perfect right to relax and let the females take care of things for them while they explored their magnificent, more superior thoughts.

Is that a big deal? My answer is yes. Every time I exhibit that behavior I am negating my professional value which also contributes to gender bias in the male dominated industry of tech. “Ah! A female colleague. She’ll most certainly fill my glass, clean the conference room and take care of the things I don’t want to do” is how I’m training men to think. Also, when I give without getting anything in return, it makes me exhausted. It makes anyone who does that exhausted.

Women as helpers is rooted in our culture

Whether it was from a home tradition like mine — or media, school, and other parts of our culture, many women got messages that their inherent value was to be a helper. This helps explain some of the mystery many women have surrounding why they always shut up first when they speak at the same time as a man at work. This doesn’t mean that the women’s liberation movement which started over 45 years ago hasn’t made an impact. Girl empowerment messages help as well. However, women are also inundated with messages that their value is in selflessly giving without any expectations of receiving anything back. I mean, just look at how hard the world is on mothers and all one needs to do to be a good father is just be there and care. Both men and women are conditioned to nitpick women to death.

As another example, look at the unconscious bias I exhibited with the title of this post. I automatically defaulted to the notion that my mother gave me this behavior by saying “What Your Momma Gave You”. My father was more than capable of getting up and doing the dishes (which he does do today) or saying “Hey! This is a weird message we are giving our girls who we want to empower. How about the men do the dishes tonight and the women sit back and share their brilliant thoughts with each other? Or how about we just mix it up and don’t even divide it by gender?” However, my initial thought was that my mother alone trained me to be this way. I left the title as is to share this example of my own unconscious bias. I too, am trained to nitpick women, including myself, to death and excuse men from any involvement.

All parents, either consciously or unconsciously, implement this type of training to a degree. My parents were and are awesome people who were simply responding to their past training pre-women’s liberation and the community we were in that labeled women as the people responsible for nurturing and help. I have unconsciously trained my daughter with some of the same behaviors and she and I are consciously untangling it together.

Untraining yourself

So how do we recognize and untrain ourselves from the subservient value in helping rather than leading messages that our mothers, fathers, and overall culture have so deeply embedded in us? Here are some steps you can take to be on your way.

1. Recognize your helper patterns

Let’s be clear — helpers are great. We all love them. I, in fact, have an office to reorganize so if anyone wants to come over and help me with it before you go through these steps I would be most grateful. (PM me to help! I’ll love and appreciate you!) No? Ok. Then let’s get rid of the helper patterns.

Women in business that operate more from the helper mentality find that they get less respect, get assigned more “make it pretty” tasks, and are simply exhausted. They give and get nothing back except for scattered praise. When the praise doesn’t come from their helping, they can feel disenfranchised, unappreciated and either victimized or angry.

Helper patterns that are common for women in male dominated industries like tech include:

· Volunteering for the assignments no one wants and that we don’t have time for

· When we speak at the same time as someone else always yielding the floor

· Being the one to clean up the conference room after a meeting

· Internalizing nitpicking feedback that is just damn ridiculous

· Speaking in passive voice

· Apologizing for having an idea or putting it down when we share it

When these helper moments happen, recognize the signatures of the processes. The signature can include a hope for recognition or appreciation, and where you feel that in your body. For example, when my helper mentality takes over I feel a rising from my chest to my throat that is hopeful. My eyes get bigger and widen. It’s the same feeling I had in school when I raised my hand in hopes of approval from my teacher for helping. When I speak at the same time as someone else, I shrink back into myself and feel the sensation of becoming smaller. (Another training note that I was told as a child I should not talk about myself too much but pay attention to others).

2. Understand and Internalize Your Super Powers

No one looks at Wonder Woman and asks why she can’t fly without an invisible plane and no one looks at Supergirl and asks why she doesn’t have a Lasso of Truth. They don’t look at each other and feel less than either. Why? Because it is recognized what is unique and special about each of them. (Personal note: I have used AquaMan and Superman in the past when describing super powers and had to struggle for a moment to find female superhero models. Thanks gender bias in the comic industry for the momentary struggle!)

To really get to the full force of your professional value, it is essential to understand your super powers and prove them to yourself — beyond a reasonable doubt — that you have them. To do this, think of some of the proudest moments of your career. Sift out the unique talent you leveraged to achieve them. Write them down. Then prove to yourself that you have these as innate super powers by writing down other moments you used these super powers to create something that matters to you — at work, at home and for yourself. These moments are facts that prove to you that you have these super powers.

As an example, I’ll share some of my super powers with you. I have proven them to myself and know that I have these.

· I am an amazing problem solver and am able to look at problems from all angles and figure out the truth of a story with amazing accuracy

· My deep empathy combined with my technical acumen creates solutions that really work and have value

· I am able to pick out meaningful trends from complex communications other people don’t see that get to the heart of the matter

· I can help people find their power in ways they never thought they could

· I can figure out anything when I set my mind to it

· I am a superior information finder — and can find information most people don’t think is possible to find

Notice that I did not include my ability to recognize that glasses are empty and fill them up for people as a super power. Why? Because it hasn’t contributed to any successes I am proud of.

Recognizing your super powers is an important piece to building confidence, making powerful choices and also protecting yourself from the inevitable nitpicking we receive. If this is hard for you, be kind to yourself. It is hard for many women who were taught to believe that feeling powerful is not ladylike or valued. Explore this with friends or get some coaching on it.

3. Only Play if There’s a Win-Win

Now that you’ve started to find the signature of your “inner helper” and understand your super powers, next time you see it ask yourself if there’s a win for you beyond recognition for selfless giving. Many women I coach struggle with this notion initially, because it is so ingrained in many of us to help that it rocks our developed value system to its very core. If our value isn’t as helpers — what is it?

Our value at work is what we are trained to do and what we are great at. Some of us write amazing code, some of us create brilliant strategize, and some of us create brilliant design. Some of us do all three. That is our value. The more we align with our super powers, which in turn creates our professional value, the more respect, promotion and energy we will get. So the next time you feel that “helper signature”, ask yourself, “What am I really going to get out of this?”. If its just recognition as a nurturer, you are not guaranteed a win. Don’t volunteer to play. If this uses your super powers in a way that will help the business and let you express your powers, absolutely play! There’s a win-win. Go for it!

Summing it Up

It feels good to be recognized as a helper, but even better to be recognized as a force of power. Helpers are kind. Leaders are powerful. Our desire to be helpers comes from our training as children and is not an innate part of who we are. Identifying your helper behaviors and their signatures at work and at home, knowing and internalizing your super powers and only playing if there’s a win-win will get you more respect, more energy and ultimately lead to you living a life you love more. If you love that helper feeling and don’t want to leave it completely behind, don’t practice it at work but find some volunteer work that is particularly rewarding. I tutor kids at Juvenile Hall in math and it’s a win-win because I learn something powerful every time.

About Me

I work with Tech Professionals and Companies to have amazing careers, rockstar teams and incredible days. With 20 years in tech, over 15 years in cybersecurity and 10 years in executive management, I coach in Tech because I love technology, love tech people, speak the language and understand the unique opportunities and challenges of the industry — both for startups and large companies. I have a BSEE from Santa Clara University and Master Coach training from IPEC.

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