She’s a lovely girl: Women, credibility and personal power

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Professional Confidence, Running a Business, Women

My personal experience navigating power dynamics in business

Around the time I turned 30, I left a teaching career to start a commercial photography business. In those early days, I did a lot of free work to get my name out there, and this included event photography at business events – a key strategy to meet more of my target market. Typically, I would ask for the opportunity to promote my services in exchange for the photographs, which would include a combination of a display of brochures or business cards, an opportunity to network with guests, and an introduction on the night by the MC.

I worked really hard in those early days to raise my profile, including taking my professional image very seriously. I was not one of those photographers that turned up in khaki pants covered in pockets; I wanted to be seen as a professional at professional events. I had carefully crafted a bio that positioned me as working in the corporate and small business space, had worked with a professional designer to produce a glossy website to show my work, and had spent countless hours taking and editing photos for little or no pay, to build my portfolio.

Despite the attention to professional details and sheer hard work, there were roadblocks that I could not control. One night when I was taking photos for the promotion exchange described above, something happened that left me so disillusioned that I can still feel my frustration as I recall the experience a decade later. Yet, it was such a small thing that no-one else would have noticed…

After a couple of hours energetically running around taking photographs, bringing 110% to my engagement with people and to my effort to include everyone in the coverage of the event, providing the best service possible to the host… it was time for acknowledgements and introductions. The host rattled off the bios of the speakers and ‘formal’ sponsors, and then just as he was closing off, he threw in: “Oh, and this is Julissa. She’s a lovely girl, so… yeah, get her to do your photos.” 

My heart sank to my stomach. Where was the business description I had painstakingly written for the acknowledgements, had emailed over, and then had double-checked to see the host had at hand on the night? In this room of mainly businessmen, I was just the lovely girl in the corner, not the professional I had worked so hard to be. I was the afterthought – and the mention I got, I would have been better off without.

I’m now 41 and in my working life I’ve changed careers 3 times, including starting 2 businesses. These changes have represented marked shifts which required learning an entirely new set of skills, building a new network and marketing myself in a new way each time, in order to be confident and credible.

When I think back on the times when I was navigating each new environment, I find there are ‘power’ stories and ‘no power’ stories – times when I felt personally powerful to create change, and times when I felt that the power was in someone else’s hands. But when I dig deeper, I see that there were both internal and external factors that contributed to whether I felt powerful or not – in other words, much of the power resided with me, even if I didn’t recognise it.

For example, a pivotal moment when I was kicking off my brand consulting business was when I took a couple of hours out to brainstorm my ‘superpowers’ – my key strengths that are truly at the heart of who I am, that contribute value to others. I wrote these out in huge letters in chalk, straight onto my office wall! This was an incredibly empowering experience, not simply because it made me feel good, but more importantly because it gave me such clarity on what I offer and the words to communicate that. From that day on, my consulting services and brand really began to take shape, because I was coming from a place of personal power and confidence when I spoke about my work.

On the flip side, as I started to attract larger consulting clients, I needed to navigate the world of writing and presenting significant proposals of work – a whole different ball game to sending off an outline for one workshop! Understanding motivations, buying cycles, budgets, decision-maker dynamics, the art of negotiation… to be honest this is one of the biggest learning curves I’ve experienced and I’m still learning about it. There are times when I have felt really disheartened after putting hours into meetings and proposal writing to find that it falls flat. At these times I have felt like I have no power – and once or twice I was even convinced that I didn’t get the gig because I’m not a man. While that may have been a factor in a couple of scenarios I can think of, when I really look at it, there are things I am learning to do differently to increase my ability to affect outcomes. I am always trying to strengthen how clearly I communicate value and demonstrate proof of results, what questions to set up to ensure my proposals hit the mark, and what steps need to come before I even write the proposal, to set myself up for success.

It is unfortunately not an exaggeration to say that as women, our external environments can put us on the back foot from the moment we are born, and many of us experience this as a part of daily life. Being overlooked, misjudged, underestimated, unheard and mistreated are sadly too common an experience for women – all of these things have happened to me, despite seeing myself as quite a confident communicator. There is now plenty of data to demonstrate the frequency of these experiences for women, as well as the fact that the problem is compounded for women belonging to additional marginalised groups.

It’s important to acknowledge and address power problems as a society, in business, and in the home. At the same time, there is so much value in working to increase your sense of personal power and how you influence for mutual good in all these environments.