Work

I Don’t Need Balls, I’ve Got Lipstick

There’s a fine line between confidence and cojones

Photograph by Getty Images

“You need to grow a pair,” he says. “I know you have them, now use them.”

He’s an old friend and he’s known me for years — part wise man, part stand-in family. I’m struggling with a situation I’ve just described to him in which the personal and professional overlap.

I’ve been holding my tongue and laying back. My gut is telling me to speak my mind, then pull out the stops and really go for it.

A few years back, I found myself in a similar circumstance. I stood up for what I knew was right, but the client didn’t want to hear it and the outcome wasn’t pretty. At least, not for me.

Taking charge can be precarious for some of us and more so for women. I say that with “Lean In” aficionados in mind: Whatever you think of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, there’s no denying her assertions that a man sails along on certain behaviors that we don’t cotton to coming from a woman.

“It sounds sexist,” he continues. “But you need to man up. Find your penis.”

“I’d rather find my lipstick,” I say.

He ignores my attempt to lighten things up.

“You’re collaborative by nature, I know that. But sometimes the soft touch isn’t effective," he goes on. "On the other hand, strength will always win you respect.”

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I hear him loud and clear. I’ve never been weak or without opinions, but too often I’ve hidden the extent of my strength, convinced it was the smarter strategy in the long run.

It wasn’t.

My friend is a boomer, as am I. He’s got a few years on me, which I frequently remind him. As we’re talking, I note the slight mottling of his skin and the thinning of his hair. But then he’s 60, although it hardly seems possible.

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His blue eyes are as steely as ever. He’s resolute in his convictions and thoughtful in his assessments. He offers a dose of truth when I need it — the essential ingredient from a trusted friend. It helps that we share the rich and uneasy history of our transitional generation. I may not have been bra burning, much less getting high and screwing everything in sight, but 35 years ago, I was vehemently saying no to my mother’s mores and yes to pursuing an independent life. Those were days when "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was a bible of sorts and college campuses were hotbeds of experimentation. An MBA was the key to advancement — or so we thought — as women were fighting our way into the hallowed halls of corporate America.

Our hours were long, our paychecks were short, our expectations were naïve, which is obvious in retrospect. And our institutions were unprepared for our arrival. Only a small number of us managed to pull up a chair at the much-touted “table.”

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I focused on gaining expertise, producing quality results, while preferring the experiential over aiming for loftier heights toward the top of the ladder. I distinguished myself but I avoided conflict. There were times I could have run with the ball and chose not to. In part, but only in part, that was a consequence of juggling career and family.

Some of my choices were a matter of not crossing a line when it came to my sense of sexual identity, which seems excruciatingly odd at this stage in life as there is nothing incongruous with being self-assured and a feminine woman.

Still, there’s a fine line between confidence and balls. I don’t think I grew a pair until I hit my forties — battling through a nasty divorce and fighting for financial survival. It was during those years and since that I realized that taking charge is not inherently male; it’s setting objectives, it’s exercising judgment, it’s stepping up so you can survive — and flourish.

The conversation with my old chum reminds me that I’m occasionally constrained by remnants of a mid-century upbringing and that includes a woman’s worries about how I come across. So I refocus on the goal — success for my client — while compartmentalizing the personal. If I let my gender get in my way, then I’m the one who’s guilty of sexism.

Even as I say that, I’m perfectly aware that sex in every sense of the word remains a significant determinant in what we do and how we do it. The man in the executive suite who presents an idea is seen as the executive presenting an idea. The woman doing the same is the female executive presenting an idea.

We judge her as well as her performance.

So I will bear in mind that I’m well equipped to separate sex from success where it makes sense and use it if it’s to my advantage. My skills are not in question any more than my femininity. I’ve got knowledge, experience, lipstick and balls. I need to view them for what they are — all in all, quite a package.

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