Women and the Masks We Wear: Striving for Success

October 20, 2015“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…”

-Paul Laurence Dunbar

As a researcher, professor, and diversity consultant who has spent my career collecting the stories of professional women, I was motivated to start The Mask Project, a national initiative to promote discussion of the masks that many women, especially women of color, feel they must wear at work.

I have found that providing women with a place to share their stories has led to catharsis for participants and given others a chance to realize they are not alone in this experience. Women who share their own narratives and read those of others also feel empowered to increase their personal and professional success by being more self-aware and proactive about the masks they wear.

Every day, we must manage our various identities and the masks we wear as a result of each. But we don’t always take the time to reflect on how wearing these masks can impact our lives. Without reflection, the mask-wearing experience can impact our emotions and behaviors negatively. Many women feel an often exhausting need to present an “ideal” image to the world.

The truth is you don’t have to be perfect to be successful; you simply need to be strategic. We owe it to ourselves to behave in ways that feel authentic, while still achieving our goals. We owe it to ourselves to learn how to remove certain masks and engage more authentically at work. By the same token, companies also need to create environments that provide opportunities for women to feel comfortable being their authentic selves. Providing positive feedback during reviews, prompting women to speak up and share their ideas, offering them opportunities/roles that provide visibility to key influencers in the organization, and not making assumptions based on gender stereotypes are all steps in the right direction.

Below are six strategies to help you U.N.M.A.S.K. at work—and tap into success!

U- Use your voice. Women often minimize their voices in order to conform, but doing so usually does not contribute to success. If you are in a meeting and have an idea to share, don’t let your fear of judgment keep you from expressing it. Allow your voice to be heard!

N- Never ignore your thoughts and emotions. Whether they are positive or negative, they reveal your state of being. If you are in a professional situation that requires action, don’t allow feelings of self-doubt hold you back. Trust yourself to execute!

M- Manage expectations. Different people and situations in your life will impose different expectations on you; strive to be at peace with not meeting all expectations at all times. When you have to choose between professional demands, e.g., a work event, and personal obligations, e.g., a family reunion, be confident in sharing that conflict with your manager or team. This will show them you’ve considered both and made the best decision for you. Vocalizing is always better than hiding!

A- Acknowledge your vulnerabilities and insecurities. The key is to make yourself aware of them so you can manage them more effectively for your own sanity and success. As high-achieving women, we must allow ourselves to feel more during critical moments in work and life. Those small moments of feeling allow us to connect with ourselves in a more authentic way.

S- Stretch yourself to be more resilient. Our ability to bounce back from moments of self-doubt, anxiety, and fear is critical to success. If you’re in a challenging or threatening situation at work, don’t allow the fear of failure to take the lead. In these moments, engage in self-talk that reinforces your worth, value, and competence.

K- Know your social support system. Make sure you are aware of who understands you best and allow those people to get close to you and support you. No one person can do everything alone. Build work relationships with sponsors, accountability partners, gatekeepers, colleagues who have your back. These relationships provide a net you can rely on in tough times. Use that net!

Share your own survival strategies for managing the different expectations placed on women in the comments below and at



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.