Ladies: Speak Up At Work

woman standing on the center table with four people on the side
Photo by Rebrand Cities on

I recently read an article in Cosmopolitan Magazine called “Can Looking Too Young Hurt You At Work?” (Feb. 2013 issue, pg. 113).  The article’s author Marissa Hermanson wrote about her struggles with feeling that her age and appearance misrepresented her as a professional — well I not only look young, but I know I could be doing more to speak up and show more initiative with my opinions to combat the stereotypes my looks might be giving off.

My current position is a Social Work Intern at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab unit in a hospital.  I already have 2 semesters experience interning in rehabs and I think my skill level is quite high for an undergrad student; yet I still feel shy about myself as a professional.

At the hospital we have these weekly meetings called Treatment Planning, and this is where the social workers and counselors meet with the psychiatrist, program director, nurses, and occasionally some other higher-ups to assess patients’ progress one-on-one.  Needless to say, being the new kid on the block in a room full of such prestigious titles is a bit intimidating.  I find myself thinking of the right questions to ask patients but not saying them, which is particularly frustrating when another person then asks the same thing right after.  I also have a lot more insight than I give myself credit for, but during the time it takes me to debate saying things in my mind, the conversation moves along and my point becomes moot.  I keep encouraging myself to open up and just go for it, but it’s a difficult hurdle for me to get over (*for those of you who know me personally, I know this must sound odd because I’m so not shy or reserved, but it’s true).

I also feel shy talking to other professionals in my field outside of Treatment Planning.  I either avoid the subject and clam up, or find myself rambling on and feeling like an idiot.  For example, I have several friends with family members in social work or mental health.  When my friends offer to put me in contact with them (which I really appreciate), I never know what to say & additionally I always prefer to speak via email – talking on the phone would just be too on-the-spot.  Again, the reason that this is so troubling is that I really am well-read in my field and I do know what I’m talking about (or would be talking about).  I get positive feedback when I speak in class, among my peers in school, and with my hospital co-workers individually.

The Cosmo article resonated with my life beyond just as an intern, but prior to my time in counseling I worked doing b2b sales for a printing company.  The company was very small, but they did excellent high-quality work & designed great graphics.  In that field, I enjoyed the challenge of being a young, attractive female in such a male dominated industry because I felt like I proved myself to everyone I encountered.  I’m by no means a printing or graphics expert, in fact I know much less about that than substance abuse treatment.  I think the difference is this: it was much easier to sell a product to a business in need of it than trying to sell the idea of myself as a professional to people I care more about.  I’m going to try to apply some of the principles I used working in printing to talking shop about social work.

The article ended with a section called “5 Ways to Be Taken Seriously At Work” — maybe someone who feels similarly to me can find this helpful.  “‘Your age and title don’t actually matter –executive presence comes from within,’ says career coach Rachael A. Keener, author of the upcoming book The Feminine Advantage.  Follow her tips and prepare to be respected.

  1. Consolidate your thoughts…
  2. Sit front and center: During a meeting,  sitting off to the side, which young women tend to do, signals that you’re not confident.  Don’t be afraid to be seen and heard.
  3. Unplug at key moments: In a meeting, take notes on paper… ‘Don’t use an electronic device like an iPhone,’ Keener warns.  ‘It can look like you’re texting or sending personal e-mails.’
  4. Speak high to low: Never end your sentences in a higher-pitched tone, as if you are asking a question.  ‘It comes across as insecure…’
  5. Volunteer to lead.”

I will follow up on this issue as my situation develops and also share insights from the class I’m taking, The Role of Women.

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