The Subtle Ways Women Play Small at Work

By: Ericka Spradley

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In life, we get what we settle for, and it’s no different in our careers. As women, we sometimes settle in the most subtle ways, and the worst part is that we don’t even recognize it.

One of the reasons for this commonality is that we aren’t socialized to own our strengths; we play small as it relates to our expertise, and it’s to our detriment in the workplace. Here’s an example of how I downplayed my expertise in my career:

I believed a college degree determined success, and in some ways it does. However, I had a decade of leadership experience by the time I was in my mid-30s, yet I hadn’t graduated from college.

Instead of communicating my results and my value consistently throughout my career, I settled in certain instances, because in my mind, I had experience but lacked the formal education. Because I didn’t obtain my bachelor’s degree until I was 40, I decided to draw a line in the sand and ask myself:

Although I’m smart and capable, will I play to win or shall I remove myself from the game because everyone appears to be more educated than I?

I chose to win and going forward, I now invite every woman to do the same.

Here are the facts:

  • Everything you’ve accomplished professionally and will accomplish begins with the way you see yourself.

When it comes to playing small, simply considering these three things and deciding which one is the greatest source of your professional pain can position you to play bigger.

1) Communication.

We undervalue and lessen our credibility when we place the word “just” ahead of our title, accomplishments, and attributes. From an early age, women, generally speaking, are taught to focus on the needs of others vs. promoting their own interests.

Have you ever said:

I’m qualified for the Strategy Manager Role, but my resume isn’t indicative of that.

How about this:

I want to study Information Systems, but I’m not as young as I used to be.

Oh, and then there’s:

Overall, my performance was good, but clearly not good enough, since my rating was average.

While these statements may be factual, you can restate them by simply eliminating the word “but.” For example, instead of the first line, you could say:

I’m qualified for the Strategy Manager Role. Therefore, I’m updating my resume and will apply before end of day.

When you communicate, the objective is to convey confidence and competence; however, you must kiss your “but” goodbye in order to do so.

[Related: The Most Common Communication Mistakes Women Make]

2) Excuses.

Excuses mean there’s a lack of ownership and accountability. Take ownership of your decisions, recognize that there is power in your choices, and take positive action.

Remember, you always have a choice. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you place the needs of others ahead of yours.

The key is to balance your needs with the needs of those around you — to create mutual wins, not the alternative, which is placing blame, making excuses, and consistently placing yourself last.

[Related: Do I Use “Busy” as an Excuse?]

3) Acceptance minus judgement.

We can be our own harshest critic, and coupled with a perfectionist mindset, this stops us from executing despite being capable and qualified.

Belief is powerful! By changing the way you think, challenging what you believe, embracing compassion, and practicing the beauty of acceptance, you will change the trajectory of your career.

Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t have to improve every weakness or shortcoming. Sometimes simply acknowledging that it is a weakness, owning it, and managing it is enough.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a New York Times best-selling author, Marianne Williamson, in hopes that you’ll refuse to play small in 2020:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, fabulous, and talented? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God, your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

[Related: How to Illuminate and Blaze Your Trail]

Ericka Spradley is the Chief PowHer Officer/Founder of Confident Career Woman, which is the premier consulting firm for corporations and the mid-career professional woman who wants to advance, better manage her career, and go further faster. She is an advocate who partners with clients to help women ditch perfection, play bigger, and make PowHer Moves by: identifying their next role, creating a career strategy, offering ongoing career guidance, and coaching clients to master interviews. For additional information, visit:

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