Throughout my career, there have been times when I have strongly felt my gender, so much so that it burned. I have been told to “smile more” in meetings. I have been called “aggressive.” I have been told I can’t do this job because I have a family at home. I felt like I had to hide my motherhood so that it wouldn’t be used against me. When I was breastfeeding my son and working, I pumped in bathrooms, on Amtrak, in offices, in my car, feeling proud to support my son, yet distraught with having to hide being a mother. I didn’t want to talk publicly about how hard it was to be a working mom. I didn’t talk about any of my struggles; I processed everything solo.
I put on a mask to protect myself. So much so that I don’t even fully recognize myself when I look back now. It made me reticent to speak up even when I felt there were important things to say. It made me analyze behavior in meetings, whether it be my posture or how I presented ideas. It made me think that asking for insights or help with a project was a sign of weakness.
I asked for an executive coach because I wanted to be a better leader and was feeling less like myself. The wall around me protected me, but it removed me from others, and I started to lose my self confidence. Only after working with my executive coach did I learn that being my authentic self was the best way to lead, that processing things with other people makes you stronger.
Being your authentic self is not about being yourself in a way that forces everyone to deal with you. Being your authentic self is being true to yourself while being aware of how you impact others. For me, that means sharing what it’s like to be a working mom, embracing who I am as a woman, being vulnerable and therefore strong. I knew that I had succeeded in removing the mask when one of my trusted colleagues said, “I don’t know what has changed about you, but you have become so much more relatable and we feel we know the real you.”
I am where I am today because many mentors, both men and women, have helped me. Now I try to help others to be self-aware and aware of others, to feel comfortable with who they are, to believe that having it all is possible, if not always pretty. Today, I am open about how it is challenging to be a dual-career couple with a family. That’s something I never used to say at work. I want people to know that it’s hard, but better when you have a community of people supporting you.
So I’m not perfect. I’m still working on all of this. When situations such as the “smile more” comment came up, I have chosen to respond to the best of my ability. To help women everywhere, you have to use your own voice. I like to say, be yourself boldly. The world needs you.
Shanna Hocking is the Senior Director of Major and Planned Gifts at Wharton and directs the Wharton Women in Leadership initiative to engage C-suite alumnae as donors and volunteer leaders. Shanna will moderate a fireside chat with Accenture North America CEO Julie Sweet at the Wharton Women’s Summit.