Stop telling me to be humble
Last week, my company did a 3-hour workshop to refresh our core values. One of the cool things about working for a 25-person company is that I get to shape foundational company tenets like core values. Each employee took turns pitching values that we thought should be considered. It was a much-needed exercise for us as many of our official values had grown 0ut of sync with our real culture.
For me, one value felt downright problematic: “Be humble.”
On the surface, “Be humble” seems benign enough. Noble, even. Many other companies have adopted these two words as a core value, including Zappos, Twilio, and Under Armour. But every time I see these two words listed as a company’s core values or as management advice, I feel a visceral distaste for the phrase.
Growing up, my mother told me that if anyone complimented me, I must reflexively deny it. At family reunions, I was instructed to swiftly punt off any flattering comments directed my way. (Interestingly, my brother doesn’t remember my mom instructing him to do this.)
Combine this cultural upbringing with studies which show that, as Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2010 TED Talk, “women systematically underestimate their own abilities.”
“If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low. “And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors. If you ask men why they did a good job,they’ll say, ‘I’m awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?’ If you ask women why they did a good job, what they’ll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.’”
I believe this chronic humility is particularly pervasive among minority and immigrant women, who get far less social affirmation than men and white women that they belong in positions of leadership. Plus, as an Asian American woman, I’m swimming upstream against media-reinforced stereotypes of Asian women as passive and subservient.
Minority women do not need to be told to be humble. We need to be told to be bold. Courageous in our decisions. Unapologetic about our personalities.
That’s right, we need to be told to be cocky.
In a recent interview, acclaimed Chinese American poet Jenny Zhang said that “the only way to survive” in an all-white environment “is to be a balling out of control egomaniac.” Her work is vulgar, honest, and “shameless.”
Being shameless is kind of important to me because as a woman of color in this world I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed, that I should have some shame, that I should accept how other people see me which is as someone who is not worth much, so I kind of have to be kind of shameless because it just helps me.
Sure, I get the good intentions behind “Be humble” as a company value—no one wants to work with assholes.
But as a woman of color, this seemingly harmless phrase is a problematic reminder to stay quiet about my achievements, to not ask for too much, to give others the credit that should really be mine.
I earned my seat at the table. I belong here. Stop telling me to be humble.