OPINION

The keys to being your own best advocate

WORTH: Research has found that gender stereotypes indeed exist within the process of self-advocacy. Picture: Shutterstock
WORTH: Research has found that gender stereotypes indeed exist within the process of self-advocacy. Picture: Shutterstock

As I stood in the bakery on Sunday - watching the server cut the sandwich I'd ordered into rectangles instead of triangles, my mouth half-opened in a muted attempt to ask her to re-angle the knife so my anxiety regarding sandwiches shapes could be soothed - I realised that I have a problem.

And it is not a problem that I'm alone in facing. I struggle with self-advocacy.

A sliced sandwich might seem like small fry in the grand scheme of things (it is), but it aptly demonstrates the principle underlying the problem, particularly when I realised that I had no problem whatsoever asking the server to cut my daughter's toasted sandwich into four triangles moments later.

I've pondered this since the weekend, and I've come to the conclusion that it is guided largely by our innate sense of worth.

When we stand up and fight for someone else, we have seen their struggle, recognised their plight and added our voice to theirs to demand justice (or in this case, four triangles of bread with cheese melted between them).

However, when we are advocating for ourselves, we have to generate all of that energy ourselves - we have to see within ourselves that we are worthy of someone going to the trouble to change what they were going to do and give us what we want instead, and then we have to demand it.

Or at least, ask politely for it.

So, as any good nerd would, I decided to do some research, and it turns out that this is a thing.

Gender stereotypes exist within this process of self-advocacy which plays a not-so-insignificant part in the oft-lamented gender-pay-gap.

Research tells us that on average, women tend to accept what they are offered in pay negotiations, whereas men tend to negotiate and as such, are often paid more.

These gender stereotypes characterise societal expectations for behaviour and as such, we tend to "expect" men to be assertive, ambitious, self-confident and straight shooters, whereas women are seen as unselfish, nurturing, caring, emotional and sensitive.

In their article, The dilemma of self-advocacy for women: another case of blaming the victim?, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 1996, R. Janoff-Bulman and B. Wade concluded that this means that as a society, we already expect men to self-advocate and women to be modest.

When I read this, I inherently rebelled against the idea that my gender might pre-determine my capacity for success (financial or lunch related).

I decided then and there that I would just act differently, forewarned about society's expectations of me, so able to forearm myself for the battle of the triangle sandwiches in my world (or, you know, professional parity. Whatever). If only it were that easy.

What do we think about women who try to step out of the shadows of this gender stereotype; who paint their faces blue and scream "freeeeedoooom" dramatically as we launch ourselves into the battle of the bakeries in our world?

Nothing too favourable, let me tell you. If I remember correctly from my honours days, this had a pretty big part to play in the whole witches thing in early modern times.

In our current era, while being burned at the stake for negotiating aggressively in the HR department is (mostly) off the table, psychological research tells us that self-advocating arguments made by women are usually seen as self-promoting or aggrandising, while the same arguments made by a man are more readily accepted.

This also affects our personal likeability as women, by both men and our fellow female colleagues. We just can't catch a damned break. So what do we do?

You are not an island, so find your piece of continent. If you can see past the poorly crafted allusion to John Donne metaphor, you'll see that what I'm really saying is find your tribe.

Then, advocate for each other and ask for input into how they would describe you and use their words to resist the apparent inherent need to hide behind your modesty bushel.

Instead, take note of your achievements, find words for them and find a comfortable corner in the uncomfortableness of your awesomeness.

My grandad used to say "no-one's going to toot your trumpet for you". So maybe we just need to learn to play the right tune.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au. Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story The keys to being your own best advocate first appeared on The Canberra Times.