Throw Down Your Pom-Poms and Get in the Game

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Last week I spoke to a group of teenaged women (ages 13-17) as part of a “go-for-your life-goals” pep rally. As I prepared to speak to the girls, I couldn’t help but recall my early days on Wall Street.

I had just started working as a sales assistant at Smith Barney’s 6th Avenue office on the 21st floor, in Manhattan. Near my desk there was what we called a bullpen, where a bunch of newly recruited stockbrokers (who were mostly men) sat and were trying to open a certain number of accounts per week via cold calling and sell a certain dollar amount in stocks.

In this locker room for twenty-something guys, testosterone ran high, and there was intense pressure to meet their quotas. These guys, faced with a lot of hellos followed by the dial tone, inevitably went for the hard-sell. One expression I liked was: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist….to know that buying this stock makes sense.” Another expression they’d use on waffling male prospects was, “Throw down your pom poms and get in the game.”

At the time, I took offense at this turn of phrase. I had been a cheerleader in high school. I had aspired to be a cheerleader. I loved being a cheerleader. It was an important part of my identity in high school. And here they were saying cheerleading didn’t matter.

But the older I get, the more I find myself wanting to say to my daughter and to all women, “Throw down your pom-poms and get in the game!

Let me share what I mean.

Some months ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Anna Fels, a psychiatrist at Cornell University, titled, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” After interviewing dozens of successful women, Dr. Fels observed that when these “women told their own story, they refused to claim a central, purposeful place.”

Were Fels to interview you, how would you tell your story? Are you using language that would suggest you are the supporting actress in your own life? For example, when someone offers words of appreciation about a dinner you have prepared, or a class you’ve taught, or an event you have organized and executed, brilliantly. Do you gracefully say, “thank you.” Or do you say, “You are so sweet. It was nothing really.”

As Fels tried to understand why women refuse to be the heroes of their own stories, she encountered the Bem Sex-Role Inventory which indicated that our society considers a woman to be feminine only within the context of a relationship and if she is giving something to someone, such as recognition. It is no wonder then that a “feminine” woman finds it difficult to get in the game, to demand support to pursue her goals, and feels selfish when she doesn’t subordinate her needs to others.

In high school there was a boy I liked a lot, actually my first true love. I was smart. He was smart. But we were both very relieved to see at the end of the first semester of our sophomore year that he had higher grades than I did.

My freshman year in college there was a young man who I was friendly with. He was not my boyfriend, but nonetheless, I remember feeling relieved when I received a 96 on a test, and he received a 98. Somehow I sensed that if I did better than him, it would upset the equilibrium of our relationship.

More recently, one of my friends who is in her mid-20’s and who just started attending Harvard Business School told me about her study group which consists of four men and two women. All are expected to contribute, and are graded on the quality of their participation in the group. The other woman in the group, who was initially quite involved, began to withdraw after the first two weeks because the men had begun to ostracize her.

Again quoting Fels, “A key type of discrimination that women face is the expectation that feminine women will forfeit opportunities for recognition…When women do speak as much as men in a work situation or compete for high-visibility positions, their femininity is assailed.”

By the way, when I was 8, I had no trouble at all going to competing with Scott McAdams on multiplication drills. He and I were continually vying for the title of fastest and smartest – Oh, I took great pride in beating him.

The point of my musings is not to say that relatedness and nurturing and cheering others on aren’t important. I absolutely 100% believe these qualities are innate in women – and if we set them aside, we will have lost an irreplaceable piece of ourselves. But contrary to what others may suggest, “getting in the game” is also a part of who we are. When we recognize this, we give ourselves permission to dream, to move ourselves to the center of our life story, and to encourage the girls and women around us to do the same.

Get in your Game.

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