Too Strong for a Woman
“You are too strong for a woman. Bring it down a notch.”
I did not know there were degrees of strength and that women were allowed only so much.
That’s how my leadership journey started in the United States of America. I was not allowed to be “too strong.” Just as strong as the man talking to me allowed me to be.
I am Turkish-American. I came to this country in 1987 – legally. Became a citizen in 1993. The first thing an American asked me after my swearing-in ceremony to become a citizen was why I didn’t change my name to an American name and told me I must be so relieved to be in this country, all said in the same breath.
I did not feel the need to change my name to become a citizen. I am proud of my heritage. I did not run away from my country. My story is nothing extraordinary. It is one of those boy meets a girl, they fall in love. The boy is American, and she moves to his home country with him. That’s it. Becoming a citizen was a choice since I would live in this country and wanted to vote. The irony is not everyone who chooses to migrate to the US is always coming into a better life. I actually lost a lot. I left behind a stellar career with great pay and benefits. When I moved to the US, I had to start over at a $5 minimum wage just for starters. So, you tell me, how relieved do you think I felt when I pledged my allegiance to the American flag? But more on this later.
So, here I was with my first leadership job after paying my dues, working hard to prove that my accent was not an indication of lesser intelligence but of the fact that I was bilingual, and now my strength was in question. As far as the VP of my board of directors was concerned, I had too much of it.
I thought I had what it took to skyrocket my career in my newly adopted country. I could speak the language, I had a graduate degree from a US college, and all the technical skills required to do my job. But shortly after starting my first leadership position, the criticism began to roll in - “ you are too strong for a woman,” “you are too opinionated,” “you are too vocal, too passionate, too smart for your own good,” … you are “too you.” You are TOO MUCH!
When I lived in Turkey, I was surrounded by strong women. I was not an anomaly. I was encouraged and expected to be strong. I had never asked permission to be who I am. Fortunately, I always had someone in my corner supporting my strength. I had a support system who would help me up if I stumbled and fell. I never bothered to conform to the norm and was always taking things up a notch. I was the woman who was going to get what she wanted. I wasn’t afraid to knock on any door and sit at any table I wanted.
But when you are away from your support system and are all alone, you start to question everything. That’s what I did. I started to question what I knew in my heart to be true. I did not want a negative reputation, and I thought trying to fit in just a bit wouldn’t hurt anything. I got so caught up in that “let me fit in a tiny bit” that I painted myself into a corner. I brought my strength down a notch, and I dimmed my light so as not to make other women feel bad, and men feel threatened. I kept quiet when I knew I should speak.
Trying to be someone else is exhausting. I was tired, completely out of alignment, and lost myself to the noise. I strayed from who I was and disconnected from my own brilliance in the process.
I woke up one morning and couldn’t recognize the woman looking back at me. I knew it was time to make a change. But when you forget who you were before you changed yourself to fit in, you cannot snap your fingers and get your real self back. It takes courage to go back all the way to the beginning and remember and reconnect with yourself.
I kept asking myself, how would I become the woman I had been before I moved to the US in the first place?
The Turkey I grew up in was a secular Turkey. My father was a devout Muslim but extremely forward-thinking. While his values reflected his beliefs and aligned with the conservative community, for the most part, he also did not want his daughters held down by men. Instead, he empowered me with his support and guidance to have my own mind and thoughts, educate myself, and know that he had my back. I remember he would literally egg me to have passionate discussions and disagreements with him. If anyone said anything like I was being disrespectful to him, he would say I needed to learn to argue with men so that I would not back down when I am confronted with such a situation. And the best way for me to learn that was with him. Growing my strength in the safe space - under his wings. My father taught me that as long as I was true to myself - ethically, morally, loving, and just - there was nothing I could not do.
I had navigated new situations, new fears, new choices, and new opportunities since young adulthood. And I truly believed that I was prepared to navigate the new land, the country I chose to be my home. I thought my strength, my ‘go-getter’ attitude, and being an ambitious woman would be welcomed and get me where I wanted to go.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think I would be told, “you are too strong for a woman; bring it down a notch.” It changed me, but there came a time I decided this was not how my story was going to end. That’s when I took it UP A NOTCH!
How about you? What is your story? Tell me everything you want me to know.