March 8, 2019

Four Rules From My Mom Every Woman Should Break

Image of a laptop and coffee mug

This is a small plaque, about 7 inches long, that sits on my desk at work. Every day, it reminds me “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History*.” (Well, actually, I inserted the hyphen here, thanks to our editor’s eagle eye for typos, but you get the drift.)

This tiny little plaque is an important daily reminder, because I tend to be a rule follower … “Do what you’re supposed to do” … “Don’t rock the boat.”  But in today’s business environment – especially as a woman – I’ve learned that following the “rules” is not always the best thing.

I blame my Mom.

To be clear, I love my Mom. She’s funny, sweet, smart and has given a lifetime of herself to her two daughters. Her rules and advice always came with love and the best of intentions.

Image of a mom with Childern

But this isn’t a Mother’s Day Post. Today is International Women’s Day. And over the years, as a woman leader in business, I’ve found myself working hard to “unlearn” some of the rules my mother imparted to my sister and me as we were growing up in the South in the 70’s and 80’s. Namely:

  • “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Yes, this is good advice for kids in certain circumstances. At its heart, the message is “don’t be nasty, don’t be negative.” But frankly, it’s terrible advice for girls and women who find themselves in situations where they need to speak up and be heard. Not everything we say is “nice” – we might be contrarian or in disagreement, we might be standing up for ourselves, we might be sharing an unpopular opinion, we might even be respectfully argumentative. Yes, we should choose words wisely and show grace and empathy. But speak up. Because if you’re only saying “nice” things, you’re not expressing your important opinion — and you’re probably coming across as a pushover.
  • “Be polite.” Okay yes – being polite is still important – we should say “please” and “thanks,” and we shouldn’t treat each other like a-holes. But in my Mom’s lexicon, often, being “polite” meant sitting back and remaining quiet when you disagree. (See above.) Or it could have meant that, when given a choice — even if you have a preference, you should let others state their preferences first, and you could just go with the flow. In short, it was considered impolite to speak your mind. Nah – I think I serve myself better by speaking up, thanks.
  • “Don’t talk to strangers.” This is another one that is clearly good advice for the little ones who would (inevitably, apparently) encounter a scary van with a shaggy man offering candy. But later in life, I’ve found myself having some of the most inspiring and engaging encounters with people I barely knew. All because I struck up a conversation with a stranger – on a plane, while standing in line, at a party or conference or other business event. My Southern upbringing, ironically, means I’m MORE likely to speak to strangers as an adult (and it scares the hell out of New Yorkers, which I find hilarious). Today’s “stranger danger” counsel to adults should instead advise, “get your face out of your phone and TALK to people.” You never know what you’ll learn, who you’ll meet, and what connections you’ll make in the process.
  • “Clear your plate or you won’t get dessert.” Obviously this one is related to more of my personal life than business, but believe me, I do plenty of eating in business settings, too. You can see how being rewarded with high-calorie sweets for eating more than you really should to begin with could lead to some problems down the road. ‘Nuff said.

Speaking of the lessons women learn at a young age that may not serve us well later in life, I was struck by this recent article in the New York Times. The article explores how hard work and discipline (= rule-following) help girls outperform boys in school. But then that advantage disappears in the work force, where men rule the world. The author posits that “while schools serve as a confidence factory for our sons, they’re only a competence factory for our daughters.”

On this International Women’s Day, I celebrate the trailblazers, the rule-breakers, the women who refused to sit back and be silent. They paved the way for the rest of us to find our voices, despite what some of our Moms might have taught us.

Now get out there and break some rules.

*Credit for the original quote goes to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

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