Standing Up to Dumbing Down

If life is less about what happens to us than how we respond, the same holds true for our children who bear witness to our lives, values, choices and attitudes, day in and day out. They absorb the good and bad, the fair and unfair, forming opinions about the world that have the power to influence and shape the very course of their lives. As a mother, I am acutely aware of this, ever mindful that I am my daughter’s first and most important role model for what it means to be female in this world — at home, at work, and in life at-large.

With that in mind, I share the following story:

A few weeks ago, I received disappointing news regarding a job opportunity that was well aligned with my strengths and experience, in an environment well-suited to my temperament, values and drive for achievement. After multiple rounds of discussion and review, it was determined that I was overqualified and would not be further considered for this particular position. The merits of the decision aside, I tried to handle the news with as much grace and good sportsmanship as I could muster up in the moment.

overqualified

I was admittedly disappointed on multiple fronts and for various reasons, though far more significant than the disappointment itself, was my ten-year-old daughter’s response:

“But mom…” she earnestly asked, “can’t you just make yourself less smart? Just forget things. You know… Tell them that you don’t know as much as they think you do. Isn’t there some kind of test you could take? If you could, it might be easier for you to find a job.”

“Maybe she’s right,” an associate remarked early the following week. “Have you ever considered just not including all of your experience on your resume? You know, Sharon, people don’t want to hire someone who might one day want a bigger role. It’s too threatening… It’s the whole hierarchy thing.” (In my book, it’s also called fear.)

Privately incensed, I thought back to similar messages I received in recent years since my accelerated, albeit bumpy rebound and re-entry into the workforce; advice I was determined to ignore: “Stay in your lane” (though I think in circles). “Practice being underwhelming” (what exactly does that mean?). “Pretend to be a beta” (which by all accounts I am not). I’ve resisted the advice because pretending to be someone you’re not is not sustainable and betrays both the self and ultimately, others. I’ve resisted because authenticity is foundational to building trust with others and influencing lasting change. I’ve resisted, because these messages contrast sharply with past advice that had heretofore served me well in the early years of my career: “Have a succession plan Sharon, and seek to grow others beneath you.” “Always surround yourself with people smarter than you so that you can continue to learn, grow and move up.” “Don’t be afraid to step up, take risks and speak out.” So I did and here I was, at a once unimaginable and seemingly unnavigable crossroad in my career.

Publicly incensed, I thought about the challenges and complexities of raising children as a single mother and why as mothers, we sometimes choose to step out or step back in our careers, perhaps pursuing new endeavors or those that we might well be over-qualified for, not from a mindset of ‘settling’ for less than we are capable of, but from the satisfaction of knowing we can leverage our experience to create and add value for others while choosing to honor the needs of our families.

As I listened to my daughter’s words, filled with love and eager to help, I was deeply touched. For a moment my heart melted, before it gave way to a deep ache and later anger, as I contemplated the implications of her reply. She had only been trying to help, but perplexed by my reaction, she told me she felt guilty, afraid she had said something wrong, wishing she had said nothing at all.

That’s when I began to worry…

What message do we send to our daughters when (for women), ambition, achievement and self-determination are potentially viewed as liabilities instead of the assets they are? How can we encourage our daughters to rise up and lean in, when far too often, the world’s message back to us is to dumb it down, blend in, and play small? Most significantly for mothers, if we choose to step up, how do we navigate and balance leaning into our leadership with the complexity of raising a family? If we step out or step back for our families, how do we overcome barriers to re-entry or the challenge of over-qualification?  

In the aftermath of her reply, I told her I couldn’t… no… I wouldn’t dumb myself down, try to forget things or choose to stay small. I would not deny, diminish or discount what I’ve worked hard to achieve, acknowledging that my achievements have been tempered with an equal dose of humility along the way. I would not succumb to the notion that I’m somehow threatening to others when the foundation of my success has been built on the principles of team, collaboration, transparency, and trust. No, I would not do these things — not just because I’m stubborn, but because true leadership is rooted in authenticity; because personal integrity is non-negotiable; because while being sensitive, situationally aware of others and making tweaks and adjustments accordingly is often necessary, appropriate and good, subjugating your strengths, minimizing your experience, and pretending to be less than you are is not.

That day I made a choice for my daughter, as much as for myself. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could choose how to wisely respond. I couldn’t change her response, but I could guide her to a better solution. I could choose to seek understanding, fight for myself, and in the process, begin to build a better dream. In doing so, I chose to honor the truth of who I am and the potential of all that she might become.

Postscript: This post is less about the outcome of an interview than it is about my daughter’s response.  Principally, this post is about the power of influence and how our choices, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, particularly as mothers, have the potential to shape the course of our children’s lives by what we model every day.  

Nevertheless, while the outcome of my interview was unrelated to gender, the notion of ‘dumbing down’ is.  As I have shared this story with others, I’ve been stirred by the number of accomplished women — leaders in their own right, who’ve admitted to ‘dumbing down’ or modifying resumes to avoid gender bias, age discrimination or the challenge of over-qualification.  I’ve also heard from women who have made choices to ‘dumb down’ in other ways, too — all circumstances that raise the delicate issue of standing on principle vs. dumbing down in the face of individual and/or familial economic need and/or social and relational acceptance.  

As I’ve sat with this post, editing and re-editing as if different words might somehow change these truths, I’ve struggled.  Even as I write this, moments of self-doubt and deep reflection have challenged me to think about the implications of my own choices — not just for myself, but for my family and others, too.  What needs do I have in the present?  What legacy do I want to leave for my children?  How can I balance the two, while serving as a model for positive change?

What roles do gender, authenticity, integrity, courage, fear, ego, and ambition play in your own decisions, both  professionally and personally?  In an age of social media, digital recruiting and personal branding, how do we navigate the challenges of transparency, which have the potential to screen out as much as screen in?  How do we courageously stand up for ourselves, that we might model and teach our daughters how to do the same for themselves?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post!  Please leave a comment and let’s continue the conversation.

21 thoughts on “Standing Up to Dumbing Down

  1. i would very much love to tweet and post this to fb, but it can’t be found according to your website… could you please send me the link when you get it fixed? thanks, vicki 🙂

    ________________________________

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    • Hi Vicki –

      Not sure what happened, but WordPress lost my post yesterday and I had to recreate. Would love to hear your comments on this post. Many thanks for reaching out.

      Cheers!

      Sharon

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  2. OK Sharon. I would rephrase a few things to suggest a new perspective. Let’s say your daughter said, “Hey Mom. Stop being such a big shot.” And instead of “dumming down” your resume, you could look at it as “modestly presenting just some of your achievements.” If you truly value the traits of humility and the ability to subit to others, then perhaps you can see yourself as being a good role model for your daughter

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        • OK. Not that I think about things as thoroughly as you do, but I will give it a shot. I have seen such a submission with regards to career with my husband. First, I started writing and acting in plays for my community (about 800 families.) We would put on about 3 plays a year,sometimes preforming them 3-4 times, and I really loved it. But my husband found this very threatening. He would always get mad and demanding when we had rehersals, OK. Even though our shows were connected with our community we still had people from the outisde come. But then once we did a show that we had prepared for our community completely for outsiders, and my husband went beserk and started threatening divorce. And this was so rediculous. What does he care if I preform a few plays and make some money? Is this something to get divorced over? But my husband thought it was. So, no more plays for the ouside. This would put an end to my aspirations over getting bigger, something that I truly aspired for, but hey, what use is the stage if I come home and have no husband? The plays were very deep and meaningful and I felt that people were really movedby them, and this is why I was so dedicated to them, but eventually I decided to stop doing them altogether for now, partially because it is beneficial to my marital harmony and partially for other reasons.
          Then, I took a translating course, and my husband got threatened again and started shouting about divorce!. He is afraid of my being sucessful career wise. I’ve given up on the translating, and now I want to get certified as a nutritionist. However, new demand: that I not accept patients! He will only allow me to work over the internet! Is that crazy??? I don’t know if it’s worth doing then!

          Now, you may find these examples to be very different from your own, but I think we have here a prioritizing of values and a willingness to stifle my talents. Even now, I started translating a weekly class of our Rabbi into English, and my husband checks and changes it. I have seen him outright turn my work into complete gramatical disasters, so I just don’t look at what he does. He is so happy when he finds a mistake! But I just let him do it, because it gives him a sense of being better than me. (My husband has ADD and didn’t make it past 10th grade!) Of course, if I were gettign paid for this, I am not sure if I would let them go out unchecked my me again!

          Now you might not agree with my choices, but I feel like I am putting my marriage before a career, and this is a choice I think is a sound one. I am putting submission over dominance (and believe me, I am a dominating type by nature). I am willing to hide my talents or have them kind of messed up, for the sake of peace.

          So I do think that this relates to your prediciment. Many people done’t want to take a chance of being outshined. Maybe they are afraid you will be taking their job away from them. And maybe you could, but is think something you want to do? Perhaps you can say that dedication to a family is one thing, but in the workplace it is dog eat dog. I think otherwise. I think that growig as a person means giving in in these ways wherever we are, caring for others and their needs, whomever they might be. This is personal growth. And I do think you are a deep, searching person who is truly looking to grow. Isn’t this a characteristic you want to model for your daughter. These are not the common values in American culture, which puts getting ahead and making money well ahead of growing as a kind, caring human being. But I do think this is what you want. I must say that I don’t think you can leave God out of this. God sends us the challenges we need to grow, and the fact that you are dwelling so deeply of this shows that you have touched a sore poing and are struglling with something greater than the issue at hand.

          Another perspective is just knowing that if the job were meant for you (if God wanted you to get this job), then you would have gotten it. However, your delimma seems to have really stretched beyond the not getting the job to larger issues so that’s why I addressed them.

          Dani

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  3. Great post! And something that I see being played out both in workplace and homes too often. You are quite correct in pointing out that playing down one’s achievements to secure a job or a project is not gender specific – in the workplace it is often dressed as ‘playing the game’ or ‘being practical’. In the home, it is dressed as ‘responding to a situation with grace and maturity’ or ‘putting marriage/relationships and others before self’ or ‘humility’. But I think what we inadvertently end up doing is sending out the message that it is somehow wrong to be more accomplished than those around you and that others’ egos and insecurities are somehow more important than your own dreams and aspriations, however noble! I am, by no means encouraging bragging about one’s achievements. But, like you, I strongly believe that by succumbing to this kind of behaviour we are just perpetuating the situation and sending out all the wrong messages to both our sons and daughters! And I dont think it was ever God’s intention for us to be slaves to others’ egos and deny our own talents and gifts!

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  4. Anjali, thanks so much for your insightful response. The balancing act can indeed be tricky, and while I do advocate being situationally aware and sensitive to others, I draw a line of distinction between service and humility (positive traits in leadership) vs. submission and subjugation of our strengths and talents.

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  5. Been there done that……while it made others comfortable it made me appear less resourceful. I agree with heartpath that you cannot forsake humility for submission when not necessary. I just had a conversation on this recently because growing up I was taught not to brag about abilities or accomplisments and it has led me to be overlooked when I knew I had the skill or expertise to handle a situation. It’s still a work in progress, but I don’t have to brag or toot my own horn for people to notice me. I simply volunteer for projects and complete the objective…..hard work will not go unnoticed forever and review time during the course of the year is a great vehicle to discussw what you can bring to your current or future role. Fantastic article!

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    • You’re spot on, Myra — actions do in fact speak louder than words, and when we’re looking for ways to contribute and/or demonstrate value, there’s no better way than by simply rolling up our sleeves, getting to work and letting the results speak for themselves! Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for chiming in!

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    • Thank you Lolly. You and I are indeed kindred spirits on so many fronts, including this one. There is so much more to say on this subject…so much more to do. 🙂

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  6. Sharon, I’ve read your post several times. It is thought-provoking and invites discussion at many levels. I’m really sorry for your personal experience in the job market right now. But the part I would like to speak to is about your daughter. I was struck by how quickly she suggested the solution was to be “less smart.”

    I suspect this was not the first time it has occurred to her that it’s not always in your best interest to be all that you can be. Children get these subtle messages from TV, movies, magazines, and comments they inadvertently overhear in the supermarket, at school, and… so on. Often they take on a belief that they should “not be too big.” It happens for both boys and girls, but my observation is it is more common in girls. And unfortunately, it can happen even when they have strong mothers as role models. The messages are many and insidious and come from so many places. The belief becomes so unconsciously embedded that as adults, we don’t even notice it any more than we notice the air we breathe. It becomes ingrained in the fiber of our being. That is… until we examine it under the light of day.

    I think it is a gift that your daughter voiced this belief… it brought it to the surface and gives you a chance to challenge it consciously. Now your conversation can be personal and not theoretical. Now you have the opportunity for ongoing discussions about her own experiences and questions. It’s the best chance she has to understand that there is no such thing as being “too big” or “too much.” She is so lucky to have you as a mother.

    Wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day
    ~ Jesse

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    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Jesse. I am indeed thankful for Allison’s response and even for the various circumstances that led to her comment.

      Both have opened a deeper dialogue between me and my daughter and have pushed me beyond the safety of the status quo, inciting me to stand up and expand this dialogue in an even more significant and constructive way, both among women and between generations of women and young girls who look to us for guidance for what it means to be female, to lead authentically and to live one’s own voice out loud.

      I look forward to sharing more in the weeks to come. Thank you, Jesse, for your friendship and for all that I have learned and continue to learn from you.

      Happy Mother’s Day to you, too!

      Sharon

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  7. Pingback: The Global Girls Project | Sharon E. Reed (@heart_path)

  8. Pingback: Whitney Johnson Sharon Reed | Global Girls Project

    • Thanks, Vicki! It’s such an important post and one that is foundational to my own work in support of women and girls’ empowerment to advance gender equality. Appreciate you taking the time to comment!

      Sharon

      Liked by 1 person

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