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On Being a Strong Professional Woman

A little while ago I put up a few links about issues of gender in the workplace but didn't really have time to elaborate, so I've come back to the topic with some thoughts. Of the posts I linked a while ago, the one that's really stuck with is the way women limit themselves by being nice. Trying to be anything besides accommodating has always been a challenge for me, especially professionally. I'm a small town Midwestern girl who was raised to, above all other things, "be nice", so in situations where there's any question about how I should act, I take the nice route. But I've seen how this has limited me over the years by not standing up for projects I believe in or pointing out issues I think are being ignored.

Lately it's really been sticking with me because I've been job hunting. While the details will stay private, the fact that I'm job searching is no big secret. I love what I do in my current position, but it's only part-time with limited opportunity for growth, so I'm looking for something full-time where I can really devote myself to providing excellent service to patrons. The problem is, in a nutshell, I'm too nice. Maybe nice isn't entirely accurate here, but a lot of the discussion about being nice seems to be centering around being afraid to speak up unless it's under ideal circumstances, and that feels awfully familiar to me.

Clearly my issue in job hunting is not resumes and cover letters. I generally get interviews for the positions I think I have a good shot at getting interviews for. However, so many of theses interviews (or second interviews) have resulted in, "You were great. Honestly, we really wish we could have hired you, too, but we could only hire one person and we decided to go with the other person." And I respond politely.

In my very first library job my boss vented her frustration about a former co-worker who had recently applied for the same position as her. My boss got it, the other person didn't and left the organization as well as a mess in one of the new areas of responsibility for my boss. My boss was a super classy lady, and so it was quite awhile after the fact that she told me this. In fact, I think she only mentioned it because I had recently told her I was thinking about becoming a librarian, and she wanted to impress upon me the fact that this is a small community and that it doesn't do you any favors to be petty. The other librarian has gone on to do great things with her career, but I've never forgotten the story. Now it seems especially appropriate to remember after I've gotten a string of "Thanks, but no thanks".

However there is definitely a difference between being petty and standing up for yourself. And I think in interviews, when asked to stand up for myself, I go the deferential route a lot more than I should. One of the posts responding to Hi Miss Julie that really stuck with me was from Val Forrestal about how she almost became an LJ Mover & Shaker. I think it takes a lot of guts to tell the world about how you didn't win a big award, especially since she goes on to question the whole process. She isn't attacking or overly negative, and in fact goes on to say some really mature things about dealing with rejection that I, frankly, really needed to hear right now. This is certainly not someone who's "being nice", but she's also not being petty, and I respect the hell out of that.

I wrote during the fall about how I'm trying to get my professional mojo back, and I think I'm well on my way, but my self-confidence is lagging far behind. Recently I got some really good advice that I'm trying to apply to everything I get nervous and self-conscious about professionally. I was told that I should look at conversations that make me nervous the same way I look at teaching or reference transactions at the desks. Basically I rock at teaching and helping students at the desk because I'm focusing on helping someone else. I freak out in presentations/interviews/etc. because I'm focusing on impressing someone else. If I look at those situations also as an opportunity to help people, then I'll be able to tap into what makes me so good at my job. Good advice, but I won't deny that it's hard to implement.

I guess seeing all sorts of articles on how women or librarians are unwilling to stand up for themselves or take credit for their achievements are hitting a raw nerve with me right now because it's always been true for me, plus I'm not completely satisfied professionally. But I guess pushing myself to stand up for my professional beliefs is why I started this blog. Over the years I've gone through periods of pretty heavy reading of librarian blogs, and finally I realized that I wanted a place to respond to the things I was reading, because usually I wanted to respond to two or three things all at the same time. A post like this where I'm not just highlighting a few posts I enjoyed, but talking about issues I'm struggling with is also really hard for me, because as Kelly points out in a follow up to the posts I've already mentioned, talking publicly about personal dissatisfaction is not always viewed constructively. However, it's in expressing dissatisfaction and spending some real time identifying problems that we start the sometimes long process to making it better.
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