This all started with my mom. She worked in the transportation and construction industries as a minority woman with English as her second language. On top of all that, she raised me as a single mom and man was I a little squirt. Something about watching her make the tough trade-offs of raising me and maintaining her career heightened my own sense of being a woman in consulting, at HBS, and in tech.
Today, in celebration of International Women’s Day, I’d like to reflect on how and why women’s issues are salient for me and what I’m doing about them.
I loved extemp but extemp did not love my gender.
In college I competed on the UT Speech Team. Extemporaneous speaking, my favorite event, gave a speaker 30 minutes to use pre-gathered research to construct a 7 minute speech on current events. I loved extemp, but extemp did not love my gender. Public speaking, like many other fields, is a game stacked against women. Famous orators are all male, and tactically we prefer speakers who are louder, have a lower pitched voice, and have more presence (height x width). But successful extempers were also described as “smart”, “analytical”, “sharp”, and these descriptions, more commonly doled out to men, steepened the uphill trek for female speakers. Extemp was not female friendly, and the data proves it. Out of 37 Extemp National Championships, only 9 were awarded to women.
Dressing for success
At speech competitions, we wore full suits (but with a splash of color). Not unlike the real world, I’ve heard vicious comments about how a woman appears “sloppy”, “messy”, “skanky”, and what her attire must indicate about her character. A negative judgement was toxic, and her choice of skirt length went further than how much effort she put into her speech. Luckily, UT Speech had a legacy of strong successful women who passed down detailed wardrobe advice. Four years of competing prepared me to dress well for interviews, networking events, and client presentations. No. Dressing for success has never been my only weapon. But what I didn’t realize was that my choice to dress well flipped a switch that signaled to myself and signaled to the world one word. A word that most women have to invest disproportionate effort compared to their male counterparts to earn: Confidence.
I wore my red skirt suit, and it made me smile.
Thanks to excellent coaching, practice, and how I presented (and perceived) myself, I began to achieve success in extemp. Senior year I made it to the National Champion Final Round of Extemp – the only female out of 6 finalists. That day, I wore a red skirt suit, and it made me smile. It reminded me to hold my head high, prompted me to stride down the halls with pride, and nudged me to take an extra second of silence before I started my speech. I wanted to win based on the merit of what I said, but I also wanted to win wearing clothing that celebrated my femininity. In speech I discovered how to express my voice, and my reasons for caring about women’s issues are not unique. Our experiences shape what we are passionate about, but I actually find the rhetoric of choice more powerful and compelling. My life story does not automatically dictate that I must make women’s issues a priority. Instead, I choose to make this a priority. Few issues address half of the population, and even fewer affect the daily lives of people you love and support.
Because it’s time to Skirt The Ceiling
In my post-extemp life, I experimented with expressing my voice at HBS. HBS has amazing resources to nurture entrepreneurship enough to get an anti-startup Houstonian like me to dip my toe in. As part of the product management curriculum at HBS, my section mate and I started Skirt The Ceiling. Skirt The Ceiling educates women entering the workforce on appropriate business attire so they spends less time mired in anxiety. #STC helps women find outfits for specific occasions so they worry less about being under-dressed or standing out.
Don your figurative red skirt suit, ladies…
The phrase “breaking the glass ceiling” invokes aggressive and arguably painful imagery. It’s intimidating, unrelatable, and does not reflect reality. Instead, let’s redefine this notion. I hope women get around obstacles in the workplace with grace, dignity, beauty, and confidence. Don your figurative red skirt suit, ladies, because it’s time to Skirt the Ceiling.
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