See Me, Hear Me

For years I’ve thought about writing a blog, it has been on my “to do” list for quite some time. Between working more than full time (common to many professionals these days), being actively involved in community organizations, and being the mother of two kids, there have never been enough hours in the day. I still face the time challenge but I’ve accepted the reality that there will never be enough quiet time in my life for reflection and blogging. Sometimes you just have to start. So today- on the 95th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, I begin my blog.

This first blog will be more personal than most — a way to set the stage about the forces and experiences that have shaped me.

When I was 2 years old, my family moved from Egypt to the UK. Five years later, we relocated to Canada. I looked and sounded different from most of the kids in my class. Children can be cruel. They made fun of my accent, my skin color, and my ignorance of local norms. I was an ‘other’- set aside because I was culturally different. I tried my best to fit in and to be like everyone else. I worked doubly hard to get top grades. It didn’t matter, though; I was not accepted as a member of the ‘in’ crowd.

After high school, I went on to university to study engineering. I was one of only eight women in the program I chose. Once again- I was different, an ‘other’, only this time it was because of gender. And again, I tried to fit in — this time by trying to ‘be one of the guys’. I drank with the guys, and made those often inappropriate ‘guy jokes’. It wasn’t until a few years after I graduated that I started realizing how exhausting it was to try so hard to be someone I wasn’t.

Once I obtained my engineering degree, I pursued a law degree. [Did I mention that I like challenges?]. I was fortunate that great women before me had cleared the path, serving as role models for a ‘woman-as-a-law-student’ model. Now, in this new environment, I had to start thinking about how to manage my position in a gender diverse (but certainly not culturally or economically diverse) academic environment.

Without realizing it, I had adapted my behavior to survive among male engineering students. To succeed in law school, I needed to discard many of those old habits and develop new ones. I needed to remember how to be friends with women as well as men. Performing well in this new academic field was much easier than my transition into a gender diverse world. I cloaked my social ineptness in a mantra I often hear younger women say today — “I’m just one of those women that found it easier to make friends with men than with other women.”

It wasn’t until I went out into the ‘real world’ that I started appreciating the error in my ways. My first six years of practicing law were with large multi-disciplinary law firms. Power was centralized among white men even though there were nearly equal numbers of male and female junior associates. Over six years and three law firms, I grew to realize that no matter what I wanted to believe, I was not ‘one of the boys’ and in fact the ‘boys’ did not see me as one of them. Instead, they saw me as someone who could perform operational work, but not strategic work. Many of them had lots of opinions on how I dressed and how I behaved — one client told me I wasn’t very ‘lady like’. And a few of them saw me not as a colleague but rather as a woman that they found attractive. The biases were both conscious and unconscious, but they were also rampant and unchecked.

Thanks to the quality of my work and also to my deep-rooted need to prove I could succeed and fit in, I was relatively successful in my career. But I had spent most of my adult life trying to meet other people’s expectations of who I should be and how I should act. I had only one tool in my tool box. That was to emulate those in positions of power. I didn’t know how to succeed in any way other than to try as hard as I could to ‘be like them’ — to assimilate. But I began to realize that I was fighting against myself.

It was difficult for me to express what I felt at that time until I came across the book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Ken Yoshino. His description of what he had been through as a gay Asian lawyer totally resonated with me. He described how he had ‘covered’, downplaying characteristics that were viewed as undesirable by the straight white male attorneys around him. The pain and energy drain he experienced mirrored my experience trying to minimize my uniqueness as a woman of middle-eastern descent in the same situation.

Enough. No more trying so hard to fit in. I decided to relish my uniqueness rather than hiding it. Surprisingly, this freed me to do even better work. In the course of my 20 year legal career, instead of pursuing the traditional approach of specializing in one area, I moved around among various specialties, at different times handling public offerings, international transactions, commercial contracts, intellectual property and then becoming a General Counsel. Remember- I love challenges.

When I felt I had learned as much as I could about the things I loved through legal roles, I took on business development projects — eventually serving as VP of Business Development of Cadence Design Systems. Craving still more opportunity for growth, I eventually left to co-found VIBLIO.

Throughout this journey, I have been conscious of how many other professional women were struggling with the same dilemma of how to succeed in a predominantly male environment. This presented another challenge and opportunity for me — helping other women accept their own unique identities while succeeding in their chosen professions. More about that part of my life, and what I’m doing now, in my next blog.

My journey so far has brought me face to face with myself and perhaps the biggest challenge among all I have faced is the challenge of accepting myself, even if I don’t fit within the status quo. It’s natural to try to fit in — we all want to feel like we belong. But more of the same is — well — redundant. And we don’t need more of the same if we’re going to fix the problems in this world.

What challenges are you currently facing in your career? What parts of your challenges stem from the environment you face? And what parts stem from your efforts to change who you are to try to fit in? In sharing our stories, we help each other.