We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we do, nonetheless. Our days are filled with making small snap judgements about ourselves and our surroundings. It’s bred into us as a safety mechanism for survival. Whether we like it or not, it’s important to acknowledge that people are going to come to their own conclusions based upon first impressions. What’s important is how to best deal with these preconceptions.
I personally experienced this truth during my first year as a corporate trainer at Philips Healthcare. I came face-to-face with it at the end of almost every class I taught. The final presentation was complete, and the class certificates had been handed out. I’d see one of the course attendees lingering behind, waiting for everyone else to exit. Once the classroom had emptied, they’d approach me saying:
“When you walked into the room, I thought you were here to introduce the instructor. I had no idea you were the instructor!”
“You remind me of my daughter.”
“When I first saw you, I wondered what this youngster could possibly teach me.”
We’re all challenged to prove ourselves when we start a job and we’re working with new colleagues. I didn’t realize that as a corporate trainer, I’d need to do it at the start of every single class. But with each passing week, as newly-hired colleagues filed into my classroom, the process of proving that I could hold my own in the world of engineering began again. I was twenty-eight years old at the time and didn’t fit the cookie cutter image of a stereotypical engineer. At 5’ 3” and a hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet, I was easily dwarfed by my middle-age-plus male colleagues when they gathered around to watch me demo a procedure on the hospital equipment.
Realizing that in my line of work as a trainer I’d constantly be dealing with people’s preconceptions about what an engineer looks like, I began to think about what I could and couldn’t control. There were some things that I just wasn’t going to change: age, gender, weight, and height. But other things I could. By focusing on my presence and presentation, I was able to proactively assert how I wanted to be perceived by my audience.
Admittedly, I didn’t always handle this well. Initially, I repeatedly complained about how unfair it was to deal these preconceptions on top of the typical hardships of starting a new job. After the first year, it was a nuance that I was able to handle. After a few more years, I recognized that I was able to help contribute towards my industry. This motivated me to become more involved, so in my leisure time, I joined the Board of Directors for the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair. And I volunteered as a judge at the fair itself. Admittedly, serving in these roles wasn’t changing anyone’s immediate perceptions. But being a part of the female presence in this leadership position in a male-dominated institution meant I was helping influence the decisions made. By being intentional in how I responded to these negative interactions, I was able to leverage this experience to both increase my influence and be a part of the long-term changes in this ever-advancing industry.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.