Each year, colorful diagrams illustrate the percentage of women who get to executive positions compared to men in Turkey. The years and numbers change, but the gap between the two colors remains the same. Without even glancing at the sex represented by the color, we know that the one above 80% is most likely representing ‘men’ while the one that barely reaches 20% represents ‘women’. This never really surprises us either. Perhaps some kind of anger... We quickly review all the reasons we are already familiar with. The roles forced upon women by their gender, the differentiation between ‘man’s job – women’s job’ that may not exist in theory anymore but surely does in practice, the presupposition that being a manager is a job that only men can handle, and that it requires one to have a ‘go-getter’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘masculine’ personality.
Statistically, it is more difficult for women to reach executive positions compared to men. Obviously, the glass ceiling is standing in the way. The situation only get worse for introverted women. For them it is not just the prejudices and difficulties that come with their sex, but also the struggle of trying to become a part of this world that is oriented towards extroverts. The numbers are not enough to accurately describe the difficulties that these women experience compared to men.
In her book ‘Quiet’, which has become the guide book of introverts around the world, Susan Cain writes that at least one-third of the American population has an introverted personality. If not you, your partner, child, or friend could easily be an introvert. I am yet to come across a study that says anything about the introvert percentage of the population in Turkey. The Turkish Language Society defines ‘introvert’ as follows: ‘Someone who has difficulties communicating with those around them, who is closed off, with weak social connections.’ For many years that was my definition as well. The more I observed these people like me, who were quiet and did not have too many friends, I thought of them as having ‘weak social connections’. I did not believe there were that many of us.
Carl Gustav Jung is one of the first to define what an introvert is. According to him, an introvert is someone who directs their attention and motivation towards their own thoughts and feelings. Jung argues that while each person has an introverted and extroverted side them, one side is often more dominant.
In time I came to understand that this person with ‘weak social connections’, is actually someone who gathers their energy from within and prefers few but deep connections. It is someone who needs to withdraw for a while after socializing, and simply ‘recharge’. I understood that this not only has nothing to do with weakness but also means that these people have a rich inner world and a strong ability to empathize with others. I learned that it is simply unfair to describe such a person as ‘struggling’, ‘weak’ or ‘closed off’ when they are merely different in the way that they socialize and express themselves.
Here is the story of women who have to pretend to be someone they are not in order to get a job and rise to the position they desire, who stand in front of a crowd with shakey hands and their heart beating against their chest, who feel worthless and like a failure in a work environment designed for extroverted individuals. We have to hear them.
Why am I like this?
Aydan is currently working as a product manager in an automotive firm. She is an introverted woman who aims to get to advance in her job. Şule, who is now a Director of Human Resources, has worked in different executive positions throughout her career. Elif is a clinical psychologist who has been a part of the academic staff of a foundation university for the past 5 years. I asked them what it means to be an introvert.
How did they feel when they were kids? Is an introverted personality something to hide? How does a Director of Human Resources approach being an introvert in the world of business? Does she have to pretend in order to get the job and advance?
It has been no more than a year since Aydan has realized that she is an introvert. She says that this discovery has brought her relief and helped her feel more valuable. She tells me about how, as a kid, being constantly criticized for not being like the others created immense pressure on her. She especially remembers asking herself the question ‘Why am I like this?’ whenever she noticed that the ‘other’ kids got more attention and were found to be more approachable. Clinical psychologist Elif says that a child questioning themselves like that could result in them pushing themselves to participate in activities they do not enjoy, for the sole purpose of being approved of and appreciated.
There is no single answer to the question ‘Why am I like this?’. Science explains it based on different genetic, environmental, and social factors. Anyway, we do not really like this question anymore. Instead, we dare to ask ourselves ‘Why should I not be like this?’ or ‘What is wrong with being like this?’
Do we have to pretend in our work life?
In her book titled ‘Quiet Impact’, Dr. Sylvia Loehken argues that with a certain amount of effort, introverts can become fine public speakers. When introverts focus on improving their strong suits such as their cautiousness, concentration, determination, as well as their ability to self-reflect, emphasize, listen, and write, they can become successful speakers. According to Loehken, if they are capable of it and believe that it won’t push their personal boundaries, there is no disadvantage in an introvert acting like an extrovert.
In job interviews, for example, Aydan chooses to highlight her extroverted characteristics and experiences instead of trying to hide her introverted side. On the other hand, Şule believes that an introverted candidate can not easily fake being an extrovert in a job interview. She thinks that even if they do, they will give themselves away from one way or another. Aydan disagrees. In her opinion, in the workplace environment, a lot of people fake being extroverts.
Most of us fill our CVs with hobbies that we always wanted to pursue but never really did, language courses or societies that we attended maybe once or twice. Even if we have not really pursued these interests, perhaps we truly believe that this hobby that we choose to write down in our CV really represents us and conveys what it is that we want to say about ourselves.
Maybe we feel the way Aydan does. We think; ‘I believe I am capable of being good at this job simply as the person I am, but I need to fit into the criteria they have for it.’ Except for jobs that are tailor-made for introverts, these criteria often include being a social, expressive individual who has improved themselves through countless activities and training, thus proving they are both business-savvy and socially competent.
In a situation like this, an introvert can naturally feel inadequate and have the tendency to consciously or unconsciously pretend to be someone they are not. They would do this when they believe they are perfectly capable of being successful in a position and not want to sacrifice an opportunity just because they do not perfectly fit the mold.
You have to be confident, clear, and capable of scolding people when necessary
Let us say it is fair to pretend until one achieves their goal, but then what? Just as Dr. Sylvia Loehken said, should we keep pushing forward our extrovert side if we are capable of doing so without harming our personal boundaries? Would this behavior not reinforce and reproduce the unwritten rules of a business world designed only for extroverts?
I ask Aydan if she would keep on pretending to be an extrovert to further advance in her career. ‘I could,’ she replies. ‘Would you prefer to?’ I ask. ‘No,’ she answers this time, ‘We shouldn’t conform to the circumstances that make us uncomfortable, it is the workplaces that should recognize and care about our needs’. Still, like many of us, she does not believe that change will come all at once. She thinks the system will continue as it is. The topic of work-life and introvertedness is rarely talked about or known of. Even when it is known, no one cares about it. This only drives introverts further into loneliness. After all, two is better than one.
In her famous book, Susan Cain writes that in order to transform the work life, we do not need people with huge egos, but rather leaders who focus not only on themselves but the companies that they manage. I ask Aydan ‘What do you think are the attributes of a good leader?’. She lists many characteristics. What I like most is how she emphasizes that a leader needs to be someone who convinces people without even trying. There should be no force, no disdain, no oppression of the ego or title. Such a person would not be a leader anyway. Maybe just a manager.
Şule focuses on this divide and asks, ‘Does everyone have to be a leader?’. According to her, the manager title is one that anyone could claim one way or another, but being a leader is different.
Yet, we never see the ones in charge, those who call themselves leaders as modest people who sometimes self-doubt, keep a low voice, and can even be confused. That loud, confident voice and the clear, demanding nature of the way they communicate represents everything we know about power. Leadership, which in theory is fit not only for extroverts, seems like it can belong to no one else because of the dogmas of work life.
No matter how strongly Aydan believes that an introverted personality might be the key to being a good leader, she is aware that it does not coincide with the realities of work life. ‘In order to get to a higher position, you need to sell your work, make it seem like you have done things you maybe haven’t.’ she says. These are not unfamiliar words. This state of acceptance hurts nonetheless. Should we be capable and ready to scold people when necessary?
Would I be more successful if I were an introvert?
What to do then? Accept the rules as they are and pretend to be someone we are not in order to be successful? What if an introverted woman does not see herself as working in finance or data processing, or as an author or doing any other ‘introvert’ job? What if she wants her way of communicating to be accepted, to be able to say no to the loudness of open offices and the tiring nature of meetings and brainstorming sessions? What if she dreams of becoming a leader in a workspace where differences are respected? Does she really have to put away this dream for good?
Elif’s answer to this question is, ‘Introverts can have a different strategy.’ Even with different strategies, it is difficult to fight alone, to stand unyielding against the system designed for extroverts. If only every time we made a Google search about work-life we came across a couple of articles supporting introverts in the workspace, or there was a discussion on social media regarding this, just like Aydan said, would so many introverts feel the need to pretend to be extroverts? Or would it be easier to say ‘This is just who I am’
This is just who I am
The question ‘Why am I like this?’ becomes ‘This is just who I am’ the more we discover ourselves and our introverted nature.
This is just who I am; I am good at listening to people and understanding how they feel. I enjoy my own company and working alone. I do not lose my concentration easily. Just because I am not surrounded by people, or because I don’t express myself the best way in every meeting does not mean I do not have great ideas.
This is just who I am; I want to be accepted for my own ways and have the right to express myself the way I feel most comfortable.
This is just who I am, and perhaps it is not me who has to change to fit into the fixed mould of the business world. Perhaps it is the system that forces me to change that is damaged and needs fixing.
Cactus Project has been designed by two introverted women who have been mistreated by the extrovert-centered rules of the business world, in order to bring the topic up for discussion in society, especially among women. It is called the Cactus Project because the cactus is not the plant that gets the most attention in a garden. It does not care about being beautiful or being the one that shines. To be an introvert means to sometimes feel like a cactus. It means to sometimes be composed, alone, but full of life. It means knowing that the spikes do not take away from one’s beauty. It is being able to sustain oneself with just a little water and plenty of sunlight, to not be as thirsty for attention and conversation as other plants can be.
It is being able to blossom despite the spikes when one simply wills it.
“This content has been prepared within the scope of Project Zoom supported by Impact Hub Istanbul and the U.S.’s Turkey Mission. It does not represent the official stance of the U.S. Government. All responsibility regarding the information and opinions presented belong to the owner.”