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Recently, a dear colleague and friend shared a story with me about an experience she had while working with a personal leadership coach. At the time, she was working at a company that was preparing to sell and because of this private equity firms were sniffing around. That means meetings upon meetings with largely all-white, all-male teams of investors hashing out acquisition decisions and negotiations. She was preparing with her leadership coach so she could show up in her best way at these meetings. She wanted to be a strong player and represent her company well. And then, amidst all the preparation, her coach told her very directly, "You're going to have to start wearing lipstick." She was stunned. Why did that matter?
I choked when she told me this story. It was clear that the coach believed that in addition to showing up as smart, strategic, and fiercely knowledgeable, my friend also had to show up in a certain way physically to be taken seriously. Apparently, knowing her stuff wasn’t enough, she had to know her stuff and play the right part. Be smart, but also be a “lady.”
My friend’s story brought me back to a little thing I've been saving for my sister. (If you are my sister, stop reading now! This is supposed to be a surprise.) If you've been reading the Nan-Cave for a while you know that my mom died almost exactly two years ago. When I was clearing out her belongings after she passed, I came upon a little clutch purse that she carried in her wedding. Inside it was a tiny pair of cotton gloves, the kind women wore for special occasions in the 60s, a handkerchief, and a little brass tube of lipstick. This made me wistful because if you knew my mother at all, you knew she often bragged about having and using only a single tube of lipstick for her entire life.
If you consider the times my mom lived through, this is quite amazing. She grew up in small-town Ohio where the first milestone for women after high school was always marriage. When she went to med school in 1958 she was the first in her family to go to college, let alone grad school. She was discouraged from pursuing her dreams at every turn. Yet, even as she faced forward and defiantly went after them, she still tried to conform to social expectations for women–she had to. When she interviewed for medical school she put her most feminine foot forward. There are a few damaged black-and-white pictures of her from that time and she’s in pillbox hats, with her hair curled and set, wearing dainty gloves. She bought that little brass lipstick tube in college and I imagine her fishing it out for major events like graduation, her med school interview, and her wedding.
Now, I have to bluntly say that not everyone looks good in makeup. The women in my family have ridiculously thin lips. My sister is not cursed with this blasted family trait like I am. I have a lipless face that simply doesn’t work with lipstick. There is no way for me to not look like I’m coloring outside the lines when I attempt to apply any lip color. I look ridiculous.
My mother, too, had come to a similar realization at some point in her life. Try as she did to deliver on society's expectations of women, ultimately she embraced her thin lips and wide makeupless face. Her interest and value was in medicine, not contouring and eyeshadow. The criteria for being good at that, maybe even great, had to be more than how ladylike she looked while doing it. That was her hope, anyway, in the late 50s and early 60s.
She was right. My mom was a short, traditionally unfeminine, unassuming woman. But when she walked into the hospital where she worked, it’s like she was ten feet tall; she was commanding, bright, and exuded liveliness. And everyone around her responded to that energy. Often, on Friday afternoons, I'd walk to her clinic and join her while she went on rounds as a medical director. I was invisible when we did this because it was entirely the Barbara Lyons show, and I loved it. I watched her review charts, talk to patients, spend more time than necessary with them, be approachable and accessible, and help them make sense of their care by deciphering the medical jargon. She saw these people and understood what they needed from her. And they felt seen and heard.
Half of what my mom brought to her practice was competency in medicine. The other half was how much she genuinely valued her work and people. How she made them feel was her true gift. And I assure you none of that could have been made better with any shade of lipstick.
How is it that after years of hard work and progress, I have a powerful leaderly woman friend who was instructed by another woman to wear lipstick if she wanted to impress the money men? How have work and careers evolved in so many ways, but we’re still trapped in a past that limited women’s gifts to the color of their lips? And how are we, especially women, playing a part in maintaining those superficial myths and pointless expectations?
My mother helped me realize that the secret to self-confidence is competence. The secret to success is knowing your stuff, it's not your shade of lipstick, your shoes, or your hair. The thing that made everyone love and admire her was the fact that she knew medicine inside and out and that she centered everything she did around her patients. Because of that, people trusted her and she was successful. Nothing else mattered.
We can’t keep expecting ourselves and others to conform to outdated ideas of what we’re supposed to look like or how we should present ourselves. We have to shift expectations. We all have the ability to bust through antiquated or silly stereotypes. We all have the ability to change the conversation and refocus it on something more than looks. It's not the lipstick that matters, it's the person. It's the powerful leader full of big ideas, hope, opportunity, knowledge, as well as failures and flaws. My greatest professional mentor taught me that. One tube of lipstick was all she needed for an entire career–40 years of lives touched and changed by competence.
We are wrapping up Black History month, but the work, our time, and our attention should not end with February. Black History is history, and it’s on all of us to learn about and celebrate Black history and culture, always. Here are some great resources for exactly that–books, films, and interviews with authors, artists, and leaders.
Four books I personally recommend:
From science fiction to memoirs to history, these must-reads for Black history month and beyond were assembled by the Innocence Project.
This is great Children’s resource, Reading Rockets, celebrates Black history and culture through children's books, interviews with Black children's authors and illustrators, classroom activities, online history resources, and powerful documentaries.
Videos and interviews
If you can, head over the University of Minnesota campus this evening to hear Rev. Dr. Nekima Levy Armstrong's keynote "From the Hood to the Halls of Power: We Shall Not be Moved." RSVP here.
I joined the podcast “On Purpose” to talk about the future of work culture and what you can do about it. We chatted about:
Listen to the episode or read the transcript!