I remember a moment where I saw failure during the early days of my career and realized I wasn’t competitive enough.

“You did this to yourself”.

When I heard those words, I was ready to rationalize, ready to walk away, ready to say “Not my fault”. It was also easy for my inner voice to say “You’re doing this to me, only because I am a woman. You wouldn’t do this to a man”.

I couldn’t find the words to say it at that time. In fact it was hard for me to even to show the disbelief I felt. I couldn’t be that articulate, collected person in that moment. I couldn’t defend what I had done and was being dismissed as not strong or competitive enough.

I saw failure staring at me that day and I didn’t like it one bit. I owned it. I owned it as I had not spoken up, not asserted myself and not been competitive enough. But what I didn’t realize at the time is that they turned me down for a big project. The only person I had to blame was me.

This brought me to the question – why did I have such a hard time being assertive and competitive? Why wasn’t I speaking up even though I knew the most on the subject? Was I not competitive because I was a woman – an Indian woman?

As an entrepreneur I bring rationality, expertise and reasoning to my interactions. These are a natural part of me. Clients come to me as I am an expert program/senior project manager and agile coach.

As a woman I juggle my emotions – I am eternally questioning right or wrong, balancing others’ feelings. I am always ready to step back so I don’t hurt someone else. I am always doing this inner assessment at a meeting – should I be more assertive, more competitive?

As an Indian woman I bring my cultural background, my respect for superiors, my sense of community, my loyalty, my caring and my faith. I am all about the team – I don’t care about personal credit.

khasi women

Image source: ourindianodyssey blog

This is some complex baggage. I am not alone as most women go through this inner struggle. I found some research that substantiated my view that culture does make an impact to how women compete. In a fascinating study on where women are more competitive than men there was a comparison made between two tribes that are polar opposites. The study compared a matrilineal society like the Khasi tribe of Shillong, Meghalaya (in India) and a patriarchal society like the Masai tribe in Tanzania. This was a field experiment which proved that the drive to compete is not just biologically determined. The Masai are male dominated and the women have to ask permission even for basic matters from men. Women are taught from birth to be subservient. The women don’t have any power and need to ask permission from elder males if the husband is absent for decisions like healthcare, travel. The Khasis on the other hand are a matrilineal society where women have all the economic power. Inheritance passes from mother to the youngest daughter. Men have very little power. When the daughter marries, the husband moves into the wife’s home. In the study conducted with support from the National Science Foundation, they ran two independent experiments where men were competing against women in each tribe with an incentive if one group came out ahead of the other on a ball toss. The financial incentive was strong enough so each tribe had reason to play the ball toss game.

Here is how the experiment was described:

Participants, two at a time, were invited to step over to a private place where a member of the research team waited for them. They were told the task involved throwing a tennis ball into a bucket from a distance of about 10 ft. Each participant would get 10 tries to land the ball in the bucket. We next asked the villagers to choose one of two payment options: in the first option, participants would receive the equivalent of $1.50 — a full day’s wage — each time they landed a ball in the bucket. In the second option, they would receive the equivalent of $4.50 for each successful pitch, but only if they were better than their opponent. If both participants succeeded the same number of times, they would both get $1.50 for each success. But if their opponent proved more apt, they received no payment for the experiment. That is, we asked the participants to choose between two options: one in which their payment depended only on their success, and one in which they would compete with someone else.

The findings were that the Masai men (50% competed) were way ahead of the Masai women(26% competed). But what was startling was that the Khasi women (54% competed) came out ahead of the Khasi men (39% competed) and ahead of the Masai men! So there is some cultural background here to consider. The Khasi tribal women really know what it takes to be ahead of the men. They’ve become more competitive than the men and know their power. I’ve learned a strong lesson here in that culture and our emotional baggage as women does make a difference to how we come across – we have the conscious choice here to continue as we are or to change and attempt to be more competitive and more present. I have met Khasi women during my time living in Shillong, Meghalaya. I am so impressed that they have this unique culture all women can learn from.

Today based on what I have become (an Indian woman entrepreneur), I know that I need to stay competitive. I know when to start showing my presence and when to assert myself. The concept of presence came from the acting world. In the acting world being present is very important. Presence is what gets you to be more assertive, to compete where you sense you need to. For actors there is the rush when you are on stage, the fear you overcome, the natural resistance the audience could have, all the unknowns to anticipate. As an actor the most important part is the audience. Learn how to connect with them and you’re already there.

I made the connection between my professional life and acting when I went through an acting class where I played Queen Elizabeth. There was a script I was supposed to enact. I needed to be angry, hostile, someone you would hate on sight. From the Queen (me) came venom and anger and a passion. The Queen was scornful, very pointed, polite but scathing. I saw the class look at me as if I had changed. At the end of the class the facilitator looked at me and said “Do you ever bring this to your professional life?” Truthfully I fight this inner me and have a hard time bringing my natural, very assertive, very competitive self to work.

Today I know that this is something I must bring forth more often. Here are the lessons I learned around staying competitive and always present.

1. Know when to be strong – There will be times when you will be brushed off or dismissed. Use your inner energy to recognize and respond. There could be a resistance to your team, your project or your direction. Know that these are the moments you cannot be passive.

2. Know when to use facts – If you meet more than resistance, try to understand the root cause. A prime example is when you are counseling a tough employee and facing resistance. Use caution. Come back with facts. Retreat only to return better armed.

3. Know when to accept a decision – There will be battles you cannot win. Pick the right ones to fight. Sometimes you need to go with the decision because that is the path of least resistance.

4. Bring your presence – No matter what the meeting is about, if you show up, show them how you are adding value. Show them what you think. Don’t miss the opportunity to speak up. Connect the dots and figure out how to stand apart. Sometimes this will be pushing yourself into an unknown zone, persevere.

5. Push yourself that extra mile – As a woman you may feel ready to leave the room, ready to leave that meeting, ready to walk away. But don’t. Hold on to the feeling and act on it. In the words of Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo)

I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.

6. Be the leader, always – I don’t forget that I am a woman leader who will always look out for my teams. In the words of Indra Nooyi (another Indian woman I admire a lot, the CEO of PepsiCo):

As a leader, I am tough on myself and I raise the standard for everybody; however, I am very caring because I want people to excel at what they are doing so that they can aspire to be me in the future.

 7. Breathe, really – In moments where we are under attack, we feel fear and we forget to breathe. Don’t let this happen. Know when you feel that fear, know to breathe and know to respond naturally, with all the facts. Fear pushes all rational thought and makes you look weak. Practice deep breathing and respond to criticism with a lot of thought. You’ll look strong and collected.

When I forget to breathe, when I feel that urge to walk away, I remind myself – I owe it to myself. I owe it to the Khasi women who have been so empowered that they rule over their society. They’ve proved we women can do it too. I hold on and I fight back, with words, with my presence, by being there. And each time I do this I bring back my inner Queen Elizabeth.

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