​Women’s forum: being your authentic self

2 months ago Alex Voskou

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​Authenticity is a huge part of our foundation inside and outside work, yet it can be a hard thing to understand and an even harder thing to achieve. Investigo’s Women’s Forum hosted a panel discussion on ‘Being Your Authentic Self’ on Wednesday 27th January. Hosted by Melanie Robinson, Principal Consultant, the event featured an expert panel of Pauline Shakespeare (Interim Head of People at Salvation Army Housing Association), Vanessa Cuddeford (a public speaking coach and news anchor), Audrey Fauvel (Cofounder at āxil) and Katy Wallace (Associate Partner at Investigo). The event explored ways of finding your confidence and values, and discussed the importance of being your authentic self in the workplace.

You squared

“To thine own self be true.”

Pauline aptly kicked off proceedings with a quote from William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ While for some, she said, “it’s difficult not to be your true self,” for many of us there are different versions of the self that depend on the situation we find ourselves in, and it’s not always easy to access the right one.

As an experienced news anchor, Vanessa helps people overcome their public speaking nerves and become confident in the workplace. She’s found that “A lack of confidence in certain situations stops clients being the person they want to be. This means you’re making decisions about your career from the perspective of what you feel you’re able to do, rather than what you want to do.” She therefore helps them to be the authentic version of themselves and to make decisions based on their aspirations, not their perceived limitations.

“I spent a long time not being authentically who I was, feeling I needed to hide to progress,” said Katy, who’s a member of Investigo’s D&I Committee. “It made me unhappy and hindered me in my personal and work life. Through maturity and being comfortable with who I am, it turned me into a happier, healthier, more energetic person.”

Creating female-fronted fintech āxil last summer, Audrey is keen to share her experience with younger women who are going through the challenges she’s already faced in her career. While she had “always been very authentic” earlier in her life, Audrey noticed that once she started work, she was being authentic in her personal life but not in her professional life, in order to blend into the workspace. She’s now trying to help younger individuals to understand this dichotomy and realise how to live their lives much better.

“I don’t think there’s one authentic version of ourselves,” said Vanessa. “I think we’re different people in different contexts. There’s a version at work, with friends, with family. It’s probably when you’re just allowing the context to dictate who shows up. If you feel small in a particular work situation, like the boardroom, you’re allowing the context of the boardroom to cause your frightened version to show up. But you get to choose. Which version of myself do I want to bring? You can borrow that confident woman and bring her to the boardroom. We change over the years, but we can be mindful of who we bring instead of letting it happen by accident.”

Being authentic requires a strength of character and confidence in the person you want to be, but a lack of authenticity points to an insecure part of us that’s seeking approval. Our values, beliefs and confidence link to how we behave in the workplace. “You walk with your skills and values at work,” said Pauline. “The struggle is when there’s a mismatch. There are plenty of times when your values don’t match the organisation’s. That’s when you’re not being authentic, having to conform to the norm. The easy answer is to be true to yourself and go somewhere else. Meeting someone outside who gives you that confidence, or coming to a self-realisation, can be the catalyst for you to go somewhere that matches your values. Don’t be dictated by somebody else’s timetable. It has to feel right for you. Your skills and values in the workplace must match.”

A journey of discovery

“It can be a journey,” added Pauline. “We all have innate values we naturally live by.” She described suffering from imposter’s syndrome after achieving a promotion, and wondering how she’d cope with the increased responsibilities of her new role. Having been safe and happy in what she was doing previously, she was now scared of being exposed in front of senior people. But when her boss did something as simple as sitting her down and saying, “I believe in you,” that was the affirmation she needed to go on and be successful in that role. “It was nice that someone else believed in me when I didn’t.”

Although we gain our beliefs as we grow up, through our background, our upbringing and society, we need to empower ourselves to decide who to be. Vanessa stressed the importance of collecting evidence for the belief you need to have in yourself. “We all have these beliefs about ourselves and go through life gathering evidence to confirm these beliefs, filtering out what doesn’t fit with that view. This woman who I want to be – what would she need to know and believe about herself to show up in the way I want to show up? Cultivate that belief and find evidence for it.”

As children, we tend to be ourselves. Yet “As you grow older, you’re taught to blend in,” said Audrey. “It took me years to understand the difference between what is natural and what is cultural. The cultural side of your life takes over. But as you get older, you realise you can come back to the natural side. It’s a journey. The sooner you can realign the two, the better you’re going to feel.”

Your sense of self can change during your life. Having spent years as a competitive athlete, Katy was forced to give up following an accident in her late teens, which caused her to lose her identity. “I couldn’t be that persona anymore. I went from Katy the swimmer to just Katy. My entire identity had been linked to that. I went on a real journey to understand who I am and what my identity is. I didn’t know what versions of myself there were.”

Coming out in her late 20s, Katy had suppressed a big part of herself for a large part of her life. She was also suffering from a chronic lack of self-belief in a work environment where she wasn’t comfortable. “I quickly took on the personalities of people around me. I thought I needed to be like that to be successful. It turned me into someone I didn’t like, and my friends and family didn’t really recognise. It also made me feel unsuccessful, as I was trying to take on the skills of those around me and forgetting what I was good at. Leaving that environment was an important step, understanding it was not the right environment for me and getting into an environment where people trusted me.”

She added, “Beliefs come from what people and society tell you. I started believing what I could be, started focusing on situations where I had been successful. I made that choice and I’m 100% comfortable with who I am.”

Evening up the numbers

From a young age, Audrey was well-adjusted to coping with a largely male environment, being the first girl among her siblings and cousins. “I once said to grandma, ‘its’ not fair, they always play their games.’ Grandma said, ‘embrace it, as that’s your environment, or put yourself in the corner.’” This piece of wisdom stood her in good stead when she spent a long time as the only woman on a corporate banking board. But being the first is a huge step because it paves the way for others to follow. One such example comes in the form of new US Vice President Kamala Harris. “It’s one of those little steps that will help all of us,” said Audrey. “You just have to go for it, embrace it. I’m pretty sure that in the next 10 years, it will be a totally different ballgame. There are so many young female leaders, with so much importance given to them. It’s mathematical. It should not put you off going for it.”

“When you have an imbalance, the most difficult thing is that you get a prevalent culture due to sheer numbers,” said Vanessa, who feels that some of the challenges stem from the different ways in which men and women communicate. “Women tend to be more consensual, more risk averse. When people converse in a certain way, it can be easy to feel you have to fit in and match that, which you might not be comfortable with. Show people you can find your own way of handling challenge and questioning people, rather than feeling you have to adopt the tone and style of others in the room. If someone questions you, question them back in a more gentle way that still marks your boundaries.”

Of course, having a better gender balance would change the conversation and feeling in these situations. But Katy, whose two biggest role models have been her brother and a male former CEO, has found it helpful not noticing the gender in the room. Instead, she looks at a group of people who communicate and process things in a different way. “By not saying ‘that man’ or ‘that woman,’ I changed the way I behaved and the way I felt about my ability to be in that room,” she said.

You at work versus you at home

Is it difficult being the same person both at work and outside work? “I am exactly as you see me inside and outside of work,” said Pauline. “It’s hard to be something else. But I recognise that sometimes you have to balance two different sides.” In social situations, Pauline observed, some colleagues will allow their professional persona to drop, possibly in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. “Either you accept it or you have to put your shield back on again. But for lots of people, it’s easier to have that shield between work and home. It’s not because you’re not being authentic, but the circumstance makes it easier to manage that way.”

Audrey feels that enforced flexible working has entirely changed the way we view and approach our colleagues. “Now we see the big boss in their home situation. People are being more human. Now I find myself opening up. It’s a good thing being able to talk, even in a work environment. We all struggle. Mental health is becoming the biggest subject we should all talk about.”

At the same time, our behaviour necessarily has to be different in online meetings where we frequently have to contend with a number of competing voices, and getting a point across can be difficult. “If you feel spoken over, there’s a structural issue with the meeting. You need to say quiet people are not getting a chance here,” said Vanessa.

Channelling authenticity

It’s important to recognise your advocates. Audrey found there was a lack of female role models when she was young, and it was therefore difficult for an ambitious young woman to find a more senior woman to talk to. So she identified senior men “with a lot of sensitivity who would listen,” which allowed her to gather “a lot of professional advice. It doesn’t matter if it’s given by a female or a male. You need a gentle, compassionate person at a higher level who is willing to help you.” Audrey promised herself that when she got to a high level in her career, she would help young people who were having difficulties being their true self. “When I was younger, I was extremely shy. The more you grow older, the more comfortable you are with yourself. Please ask – the worse you can get is ‘I don’t want to help you,’ but you don’t miss someone who says no. Don’t be shy to ask.”

How much does the media affect our ability to be authentic? Thanks to social media, we now see a huge variety of people every day, which includes previously underrepresented groups. People who once felt marginalised can now easily access others with whom they resonate. But it’s important that we take the good with the bad. “Ironically, social media and the media have pushed people to say ‘don’t label me,’ but they label themselves more than they used to because of what they see in the media,” said Katy, who stressed the importance of “Staying true to who you are, not following the fads. It’s an important conversation to have with younger generations. Go with what truly resonates with you, not what resonates with your friends or groups you think are popular.”

This once again highlights the importance of genuine role models, of finding someone who you can visualise yourself being like. “It’s biologically innate to us to want to be part of the group,” said Vanessa. “Role models are really important. If I can see they’re like me and I see I’m not weird, that allows me to be that authentic version of myself.”

It’s up to employers to create an environment that fosters inclusivity and makes everyone feel comfortable being themselves. “The first thing they can do is listen,” said Pauline. “You need to forget where the tramlines are and adapt to what people need. Different people need different things.” Managers shouldn’t be afraid to get creative. Pauline recently called her team to a mystery meeting where she asked them to down tools in 15 minutes and use the rest of the day to do something that made them happy. For an in-the-moment demonstration of a moment of health and wellbeing, they were also asked to send in a picture – what and why was up to them – which was shared with the team at the next team meeting.

Conclusion

It seems strange to say, but being the person who you really are is not as easy as it sounds. That person can easily get lost in the storm of conflicting messages assaulting our everyday lives – whether through work, the media or those close to us – with our desire for affirmation and acceptance sometimes driving us towards behaviour that doesn’t truly reflect our true self. It’s important that we filter through the white noise by paying close attention to the advice and the attitudes that really resonate. That comes with age and with knowledge. It also comes with guidance from the right people. Organisations can do their part by giving their people the platform of an inclusive workplace, which allows these authentic selves to thrive.

Many thanks to our panel and to everyone who contributed to the event. If you’d like to attend the next Women’s Forum or you’d like to speak to one of our experts about any of the topics raised during the discussion, please contact us.