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Assertive Is Not Bossy: What My Mom Taught Me About Being a Working Woman

sharon o'malley“Don’t rely on a man for anything,” was a common piece of advice from my late mom, Sharon O’Malley.

The advice always sounded a little funny, considering the fact that she was a happily married woman and mother to my younger sister and me. But she didn’t say it in jest or out of spite for my dad. She gave advice from experience.

She wanted her daughters to know that they were capable of doing everything we set our minds to do, without needing to lean on someone else to get there. I think her strength came largely from her mother, who was able to get food on the table every week without much help from her husband, who tended to spend all of his income on himself, leaving his family to fend for themselves.

The Power Suit

When I was little, my household was unique because my mom and my dad each worked 40+-hour weeks. Today the number of dual-income families is much higher, but that wasn’t the case when I was young. My mom was leaning in far before it was cool (she had high-power jobs, she always made more money than my dad, and she worked to provide a better life for her family), and she was doing her best to advance her career and be the best mom she could be for her family.

She had a red suit that she liked to call her power suit. Now, this being the 80s, try to visualize the shoulder pads on the three-button suit jacket and the calf-length suit skirt, and you’ll get a pretty good picture of that power suit. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of her in that suit, but as you can see by the picture here, red was her power color of choice for her whole life.

One morning, when I was small, I wandered in to her room when she was getting ready. I saw the red suit laid out on the bed, and I asked what it was for.

She told me, “Honey, this is my power suit. I wear this when I have an important meeting or presentation and I need people at work to see things my way.” She then told me something I remember all these years later.

She said, “You never get anywhere when you raise your voice, so you have to do something else when you want to be heard.”

Then she buttoned up her suit jacket, squared her shoulders, and finished getting ready.

I could have sworn she walked like she was eight inches taller. I can’t tell you what she did that day, or any day that she wore her power suit, but I really believe she was a force to be reckoned with.

My “Red Suit”

I think about that suit from time to time, and the power associated with it. In fact, I brought the wisdom of the red suit with me when I started my career, too. I didn’t have a red suit (because by the time I entered the work force, that would have been ridiculous!), but in every interview I went on, I made sure to wear a red shirt. I wanted to be remembered for wearing a bright color, but more than that, I wanted to channel the power. And you know what? It worked. Over time, I realized I didn’t need a particular color to feel more powerful, so my red suit morphed over time. But I know she was right: when I’m having an important conversation, I always wear something that lets me channel that power.

The Rest of My Mom’s Career

My mom worked her way up the ranks in healthcare and was widely respected in her field. She ended her career working for military health insurance, where she made it her priority to provide care for members of the military and their families. She was spunky and tireless, and always impeccably dressed. She knew how to maneuver in the male-dominated world of healthcare. She asserted herself, stood up for her colleagues, and made sure everyone knew she was the boss.

But nobody ever called her bossy.

The Summer Before College

I got to work with my mom one summer. I was right out of high school, ready to head into the wild world of college, and she snagged me a job (that paid $10/hour!) filing paperwork in her office. It wasn’t glamorous, but I loved it. I got to commute with her every day and, more importantly, I got to see how she was perceived at work. She made a point to say good morning to absolutely everyone, and she said it with the warmth of someone who didn’t just finish saying that phrase 15 times already. She made a point to get to know her coworkers on a personal level and to let them know a little about our family too. It was so inspiring to see what kind of person/coworker/boss my mom was, and it made me much more conscious of how I wanted to be at work.

Learning More About My Mom

My mom passed away unexpectedly last year, and it was nearly as much of a blow to her work family as it was to our own. They held their own memorial service for her at the hospital on the army base where she worked for the last decade. Each person told a story about her to our family, and it was really touching to see how many people at work — especially women — looked up to her and modeled their working lives after hers.

Here are the rules my mom followed in the workplace that I’ve tried to apply to my career too.

Mom’s Working Rules

  • Always dress better than you think you need to. When in doubt, wear a suit.
  • The right clothes can give you a boost of confidence.
  • Assertive is not bossy. When you’re at work, you’re teaching people how to treat you, and when you’re assertive, they know they need to treat you with respect.
  • Never talk out of anger. Ride the frustration privately, take a walk around the block, and revisit the conversation when things have died down.
  • Look out for the people who work for you. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome, like a valuable part of the team.
  • Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize! My mom had over 20 pairs of reading glasses at her desk — one for every possible outfit combo!
  • Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you think is right.
  • Understand (and work within) the rules of the game.
  • Work hard, and don’t get caught up in thinking about what you deserve.

See, for her, bossy wasn’t an issue. She was assertive and got things done, and from the way her coworkers spoke about her, she made work fun, celebrated successes with them, and helped work through complications.

I think of her a lot these days and wonder if she regretted working so hard. But I don’t think so. For her, working hard was part of what she had to do. I admire her for it. My dad admires her for it. My sister admires her for it. Her old coworkers admire her for it.

And I’m proud to call her my mother.

Image credit: Frugal Portland (but I’m pretty sure my dad took this one!)

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