THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Lili Balfour Headshot

Making it in a (Hu)man's World

Posted: Updated:

The most important knowledge extracted during my college career was learning how to think like a man, but act like a lady. As a finance student at Cal Poly, I was one of a handful of women in my major. This made my life slightly awkward, but nothing that I wasn't willing to put myself through. I believe that if you want something bad enough, you have to go get it.

I wasn't the only woman who felt the chill. It was common for males to not invite the females to Friday night study group or chuckle when we raised our hand to answer a question in class. We didn't fit the mold. We were girls. Girls didn't study finance. This message apparently irked my female counterparts, as they quickly shifted to the more gender neutral major of accounting. I stuck it out in finance and here is what I learned.

Men and women are the same. We all desire to have purpose and meaning in our lives. Here is where the problem lies -- boys and girls receive entirely different messages about purpose and meaning in their formative years. Boys are typically raised to compete in aggressive activities, where winning is the main goal, and play games which are intellectually challenging, where the smartest person is the winner. Like most girls, I spent my childhood years making sure my Barbies looked pretty. Naturally, I grew up to be a woman who spends time at the gym and the hair salon. I was socially conditioned, like many other girls, to believe that my purpose and meaning were derived from my physical appearance. As a child, I spent zero hours playing aggressive sports or intellectually challenging games. I didn't care about being the winner or being the smartest kid in the room. I don't blame my parents for the deficiencies in my upbringing. They were taught the same nonsense by their own parents.

Below are a few observations I've made regarding messages on gender and how they affect society as a whole:

2013-04-04-Screenshot20130404at11.21.25AM.png

Now that we understand the problem, we can explore solutions. The more we bring young women into competitive and intellectually challenging activities, the sooner we will close the gender gap. I am not ignoring sex; I will leave that for the end.

What the World Needs Now

Let's take a closer look at the solution.

I discovered a few wonderful ads from the 80s, which delivered the appropriate message to children -- boys and girls can share interests in intellectually stimulating activities and work together. We need to continue to send this message to children.

2013-04-04-Screenshot20130404at11.25.28AM.png

The manufacturer of Barbie, Mattel, has come a long way with the creation of a series of Barbies that explore engineering, architecture, education, media veterinary science and dentistry.

2013-04-04-Screenshot20130404at11.25.49AM.png

Last year, Debbie Sterling, a Stanford trained engineer, created GoldieBlox to show young girls that they can enjoy engineering, and still enjoy their feminine side.

It is critical that young girls view intelligence as a feminine attribute, not a masculine attribute.

Where Are We Today?

We are making great strides in creating a world where women can comfortably explore historically male-dominated fields and both genders can learn to work effectively together.

I recently spoke with women who have been successful at making it work in a (hu)man's world. Her is what they had to say:

Alice Han, who majored in computer science and held positions with the technology teams of Hewlett Packard, PayPal, and Yahoo!, and now Zappos Labs in San Francisco, learned early how to adapt to a male environment. She learned that understanding the communication style of any group is critical to developing effective work environments and observed that men were more receptive to quantitative data over qualitative data. Armed with this knowledge, she adjusted her communication style to meet the needs of her team.

Vanessa Alvarez, whose work as an enterprise technology analyst has garnered her appearances on Bloomberg TV and mentions in CNNMoney, Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Investor's Business Daily, has spent the past 10 years working alongside men, in a male-dominated environment. She has three golden rules for women working in technology:

1) Always demand respect. If you demand respect, the respect will come. Your behavior and actions will naturally elicit respect from people.

2) Stand your ground. Always be prepared to back your argument with facts. Whether people agree with you or not, if you can back your argument they will acknowledge you have made your point.

3) Be genderless: You should want to be taken seriously because you know that you're good at what you do, not because you're a woman and need special consideration.

This leads me to the last, and most important, part of learning how to make it in a (hu)man's world: Sex.

As I mentioned early on, men and women typically have different views about sexuality. Most men believe that the more sex they have the better. Most women tend to keep their sex lives private. In other words, you would tend to believe that they have very little sex, if any at all. So, how does this play out in the workplace?

Women tend to receive unwanted advances in the workplace more often than men. Unfortunately, many women do not speak up for fear of retaliation. I strongly believe that women should always report any type of sexual harassment. Let it be known that you are not interested and that you will not tolerate it. If it persists, escalate your complaint.

We, as a society, are moving in the right direction. We are seeing more women taking on leadership roles and paving the way for the next generation. We cannot let sexuality stand in the way of our progress.