By DeJeune O'Garro • December 29, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Other Career Issues
During her Becoming book tour, First Lady Michelle Obama chronicled her career and professional and personal challenges. Though in a large arena, her deeply personal stories, which usually ended in sage advice, felt like they were spoken directly to me. One such piece of advice is actually the #1 piece of career advice I ever received. After sharing that she brought her four month old daughter to an interview in which she unapologetically negotiated for the salary and benefits she desired, she admonished women in the room to stop hiding everything about ourselves and start bringing those things to the table because we will be better employees and enjoy work and life that much more.
I sat there wondering whether she’d actually read my life’s story instead of writing her own. There I was becoming a mother and an attorney with old baggage weighing me down. Early in my career, I’d succumbed to actual and perceived pressure to “cover” so many parts of my identity in the workplace and elsewhere in order to be accepted and to succeed, but as a child, I’d been taught to withstand that type of pressure.
After my mother died when I was thirteen, my father doubled down on his philosophy that I should be a go-getter and independent thinker. He raised me to be resilient, curious, and assertive. However, subsequent social experiences gave rise to inhibitions, insecurities, and inclinations to accommodate others. Like Elizabeth Lesser’s December 2016 TED talk, my soul was becoming so layered that I could no longer speak my truth or seek truth in others.
For example, a male manager said I “handled [a particular matter] like a man, but next time try a softer approach.” In other words, the same outcome and process would’ve been acceptable for a man but not for me. Then there were several women at the firm who coached me to become mini versions of them rather than the best version of me and a headhunter who refused to meet my salary requirements (only to discover he’d given lower ranking consultants twice what he offered me). Despite some good intentions, these individuals failed to understand and value how differences could enrich an experience and in the latter case, wholly underestimated my worth.
Admittedly, I exacerbated many situations (for myself and those who would come after me) by sitting in silence and covering for years, but when I decided to enroll in graduate school, I started bringing more of my authentic self to each interaction. That journey has endured, so First Lady Obama’s advice was so timely. I’d just started in Big Law as a mother to an infant son, and being back in corporate America, I found myself resorting to old habits. As I sat in my office the week after the tour date debating whether to tell a partner that I had a hard stop to pick up my son from daycare, I heard First Lady Obama’s voice tell me to “stop hiding.”