Whenever you’re doing something that doesn’t fit the norm, people can get confused and sometimes they say things to you that don’t make any sense. Here’s an example of a conversation I once had at a cocktail party in Hong Kong to illustrate.

  • New person: So, you work for Kimberly-Clark. What do you do?
  • Me: I run the company in Hong Kong.
  • New person: So you’re in charge of Marketing?
  • Me: No. I run the company.
  • New person: Like all of the areas of the company? 
  • Me: Yes. All of the areas of the company.
  • New person: Oh.

After a longer conversation with this person to clarify his confusion, he said that he thought I was being coy when I said I ran the company. He assumed that it probably meant I was in charge of Marketing. He said he didn’t think I was in charge of Sales because normally those were men in his experience. And he didn’t think I was the head of the organization because he assumed I was too young to hold that role. It turns out, he had underestimated my age and experience, and had pegged me for a more junior role than the one I was holding.

I have had similarly awkward conversations when people on airplanes have struck up conversations with me and they want to talk about work. One gentleman asked why I was flying to Berlin, and I responded that I was going to teach a class. He asked if I was chaperoning high school students for a summer trip, and I said that I was going to teach MBA students with Duke University. His head literally jerked back as he absorbed this new information that was very different from what he’d expected me to say. He also said I did not fit the profile he would have assumed for an MBA professor, whatever that means.

At work, this has happened too, and I recall one particular meeting in which there were 12 men from my company, one woman (me), and 3 private equity guys who were trying to convince my company to buy one of their companies. The private equity guys went around socializing and introducing themselves to everyone who was older and male, incorrectly assuming that they were the power centers and decision makers. They did not speak to me at all. When the meeting started, the CEO looked at me and said, “Robin, this is your meeting and your decision. Kick us off.” And the private equity guys looked like deers in headlights as they realized they’d been kissing up to the wrong people. For various reasons, I decided not to acquire their company.

I’ve even had this happen in nonprofit settings. After contributing oodles of money to an organization that does great things in my local community, I asked to meet with the head of the NGO to see if there were other ways I could contribute with my time and talents (not just my resources). My father happened to be visiting me that day, so I took him with me to the meeting. When the head of the organization walked out of his office to meet me for the first time, he went straight to my father to shake his hand, assuming that my father was the donor who had been contributing financially over the years. When my father introduced himself, and then introduced me, there was a second or two of confusion and a realignment of expectation of who the real players in the meeting were. The funny part is I’m now being asked to be on their board of directors.

And personally, this has happened as well. At one point in my life, I bought a beach house in Uruguay. After purchasing the home, one acquaintance asked me if I “won” the house in my divorce, and another asked me if my father had bought the house for me. Neither situation was remotely close to the truth. I bought the house. Just me.

I’m honestly not sure why these situations occur other than because I don’t fit the stereotype of what people think a head of a company, a donor, a decision maker, a beach house buyer, or a professor is “supposed” to look like. Their conditioning has led them to believe those people look a certain way, and they don’t see me fitting the bill.

And here’s the issue. For many years, I assumed that people were trying to hold me back or hold me down with those comments. After all, it felt like I was being minimized because they were always assuming I was in a role that was “less than” my actual role. Nobody ever “upgraded” me—their assumptions always “downgraded” me from where I was at the time. And it really ticked me off. Seriously. Lots of eye rolls and heavy sighs and punching bags on my part.

And then I realized that these people weren’t intentionally holding me back or holding me down with their comments. They were truly puzzled when they realized I didn’t fit their mold and they had to look at me in a different way. After they got over the shock, they got interested in what I was doing and how I got there, and the conversations always took a different turn (which often included asking me if I’d speak with their daughters and I always asked why they wouldn’t want me to speak to their sons too).

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are awful and who will try to hold you down (and I will write about that in another post), but I am saying that in my experience, the majority of people aren’t jabbing at you with subtle digs. They are actually guilty of putting their feet in their mouths and they’re genuinely apologetic when they realize their mistake.

And I’ve learned that instead of dismissing them automatically and stomping off when I feel slighted, it’s worth taking the time to talk it through instead. In fact, some of my most valued mentors and friends are people who underestimated me at first glance.

If you are a person who feels constantly underestimated, know that you’re not alone. But please also know that it’s THEIR own issue about what they think is “normal” and how things are “supposed” to be and it’s not really about you. And know that it’s actually quite fun to be gutsy as you are the “challenge to their balance” (as Natalie Merchant sings) and as you share who you are, what your path has been, and where you’re going from here.