Lady Business: On Confidence and Self-Advocacy

I was thinking more about who taught me what I’ve learned about work after I wrote this post on mentoring and wanted to share thoughts from others, too.

First, I want to clarify that I never meant to insinuate that women’s looks don’t play a role in how they’re perceived in our culture or at work. I know firsthand, as a 5’11 black woman with dreads, that your physical presentation makes a difference in how you are treated. While I was a reporter in San Francisco, I wore business slacks and a pretty blouse to a function for some alumnae from the prep school I attended. I was instantly mistaken for the help at the door.

What you look like certainly matters. Forbes Woman has more detail on that.

But when you’re a teenager, especially a woman of color from an urban and poor setting, you are often treated as if all that matters is what you look like. So I consider it important in my work to remind girls (and sometimes other women) that while business fashion and professional comportment are important, getting caught up in what you look like can be a trap.

The mentors who taught me about work were so eager to make sure that I didn’t undermine my potential to work in a variety of spaces because of my low self-esteem, we never talked about what to wear. So I wore what I had. That created some problems at Goldman Sachs when I wore pants that were too tight and was reprimanded by my boss.

  1. I hated that job anyway.
  2. It took a few paychecks for me to save up and take a trip to Filene’s Basement to buy better, work-appropriate clothes.

And, as we know, journalists and writers are not exactly masters of style. So you can never listen to what I say about fashion. What I learned from those experiences was that I wanted to work in an environment where I could dress in step with what my colleagues were wearing—business casual is best for me, personally. But I also learned that no matter what I was wearing, I could potentially be mistaken for the help.

So I liked what commenters Tahnee and Rose wrote about their work experiences. They learned from men and women in their lives that confidence and self-advocacy were essential—and I completely agree.

Tahnee wrote that her first job was working in her aunt’s jewelry shop when she was 14. “She taught me a lot, gave me confidence, and inspired me to walk in her footsteps,” she wrote. Her dad, a self-employed photojournalist for 30 years, also instilled confidence. He taught her something that I think is really important for women to keep in mind: “You need to advocate for yourself—there won’t always be someone there to do it for you. Especially for women—so many are too modest.”

For a long time I was overly modest about my work and sometimes I still am. But I have male colleagues and peers who go overboard talking about themselves and their work. At the end of the day, they get better-paying and more frequent gigs because they know how to advocate for themselves. Nobody tells them that they need to pipe down because no one wants to hear it. Self-advocacy is huge.

Rose wrote that she still gets conflicting messages from her family about her career. This is something I’ve struggled with and so have some of my friends. “The loudest [message] is that they don’t care about my professional aspirations and that I’ll be lucky to get a job or make any money at all.” I can completely relate to this.

My father died in 2010, but I met him at my high school graduation in 1996. He served in the military after high school, learned how to be a draftsman in the military, and worked as a civil engineer for over 40 years. He resented my education and he abhorred the idea that I wanted to be a full-time writer because it just wasn’t practical and he didn’t think I was any good at it.

“You should be a teacher or something,” he said once.

“I was born to write,” I said back, but my voice was shaking. If he didn’t believe it, why did I believe it? Suddenly, I was plagued with self-doubt. 

“No one was born to do anything,” he responded. And that was that. I still went on to work as a reporter and to publish. But until he died, I heard his voice in my head telling me that I should do something else. It took the death of both my parents for me to follow my dreams, regardless of my own fear and the projected fear of others who discouraged me. I think we all need different catalysts to go after the things we want in business, since we all have different goals. But you’ll have enough naysayers of all genders telling you can’t do something. Why add your own voice to the chorus?

Joshunda Sanders, a Black woman with short black hair, smiles brightly at the camera
by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Men extoll their virtues, women brag

Insightful post. Important that we recognize our own value, whether or not others do. Lots of times when women speak about their contributions, they are perceived as bragging. If you have allies in your field, ask to make mutually-supportive comments. People believe what others say about me, more than what I say about myself, even when it's the same thing.

Good point

I think what you mention about having advocates who say similar things about you is very true.
This is why LinkedIn Recommendations work so well -- people want to hear other people say about you what you may want to believe/what may be true about your virtues.

Women business owners- best deal!

In all honestly, I believe that when all else fails, the greatest way to establish the knowledge that "women can make it in the market" is to just start our own business. You know, attracting and stealing customers/clients for your own business, and when it gets big, use your influence to denounce anti-women/feminine (especially that damn rap music), homophobia (especially that damn rap music), and racism (especially that damn rap music), and then use your economic power to help the prey of this society, the victims of the bigotry(ies?) listed above.

I take it you're not a rap fan...

Which I totally understand.
But I grew up in the Bronx and was shaped by hip hop and come from a hip hop ethos.
I dislike the misogyny in SOME of the music, just like I dislike the misogyny and bigotry in SOME rock and roll. Not all of the music or the culture should be miscast as woman-hating or homophobic, since that's not really true.

But to your point about entrepreneurship, I wholeheartedly agree. One of the reasons I took a leap of faith to become an entrepreneur myself is because I had done things according to arbitrary business rules for a long time and nothing seemed to fit. I used to think that I could be an effective change agent from within a structure, but for it, it turns out that I can do much better work that is aligned with my values working in a different capacity.

I only wish it paid as much! But I also believe that the money will come when we follow our purpose and our passion.

Confidence and Self-Advocacy: What about uncertainty?

I think this is a great post and I wholeheartedly believe that what you are writing about are the necessary steps for getting to a position where you are able to do the work you love to do. My problem is: I have no idea what that work is that I want to do. I am not sure how to go about figuring this out, and in the meantime, I need to do some kind of work in order to pay the bills. Did you always know you wanted to write? How did you know this and do you know of people who have no idea of what they want to do, but are able to figure this out (any tips for how to do this).

I feel like I would be a much better self-advocate if I wasn't so damn uncertain as to what I was advocating.

Ways to figure out what you want to do

Hey, Grace:

You raise really good points.
To answer your question, I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and a college professor. But along the way, I also aspired to do other things that I loved, even though I would find out they weren't lucrative or they were pipe dreams considering where I came from: to be a singer, a fashion designer, etc.
In part because of my background, I was a huge self-help nerd. So I spent a lot of my youth reading books with quizzes in them. I wish I could be more specific, but they ranged from "How To Fix Your Low Self-Esteem" (Or something like that) to more business-type books like What Color Is Your Parachute?
I also love personality profiling tests like Myers Briggs. You can find a ton of resources at your local library and online for free that can help you figure out what matters most to you. In general, most people seem to figure this out using a process of elimination over time -- they try one thing, it dead ends, so they try another thing. No one path works for everyone. But knowing yourself, and what you like, is just one piece of it. Sometimes you can literally stumble into work that you grow to love and you learn later why you love it, and what it is that you're advocating for in the work.
I hope this is somewhat helpful.

Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your reply! It is very, very helpful even just to hear that I am not crazy for not quite knowing what my thing is.

I've just followed you on tumblr, J., and I hope to read your excellent posts in the future.


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