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How I overcame my fear of tall poppy syndrome

25 October 2019

A few weeks ago, I woke up to some really wonderful news – I’d been named as one of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence. There was a range of emotions – excitement, overwhelm, embarrassment, shock and of course, there were tears (happy, I think!).

But when those emotions settled, there was one feeling that remained: shame. Although I’d announced it on my Facebook and LinkedIn (why let someone else make the announcement for me?), I instantly began to dread the reactions of some friends and members of my community.

Tall poppy syndrome is a known phenomenon. It’s not new and impacts persons of all genders in a range of domains. You yourself might have experienced it.

Have you ever shared a success – perhaps a project that went well at work, a promotion, an award or secured a new volunteer position – only to be met with an unkind or dismissive reaction?

Seeking solace on the internet, I stumbled upon a report on this very topic. Written by CGU last year, the report had some interesting findings:

  • 53% of Australians are ‘dreamers’, people who have considered starting a business or side hustle in the last 5 years

  • 34% of us feel unable to act on our ambitions

  • Only 6% of Australians have acted on their ambition and have started their own business or side hustle

More specifically, 68% of Australians believe that Australia has a culture of negativity towards ambition with nearly 7 in 10 Australians surveyed reporting they don’t talk about their ambitions for fear of being labelled a ‘bragger’.

Given this finding, it’s no wonder so many of us are afraid of being the tall poppy. When there’s an expectation that we should all grow together, it doesn’t pay to stand out from the crowd. To be the one who’s doing the work that others wish they were doing. And while this culture impacts both men and women, it has a greater impact on women in a world that still isn’t comfortable with female success.

The trope of the ‘ambitious woman’ remains one which haunts the successful. An ambitious or successful woman is an unlikeable woman, a selfish woman and one who’s not thinking about her community. While we expect men to advocate for themselves, fundamental to femininity is the expectation that women are focused on the collective. Behaviours or events that that contradict this – even if the woman is being celebrated for her work with the community – make us uncomfortable. This is further reinforced in our language, as many adjectives to describe success are heavily gendered. The only reason why the #girlboss hashtag has been created is because boss is still seen as an inherently masculine term. Why else would we need to put a female term in front of the word to apply it to women’s work?

Now, combine with that the negative stereotypes around age which continue to make it harder for young people to be taken seriously. Not an easy spot for a young woman to be.

So, as successful ambitious women, what can we do to manage tall poppy syndrome? Chatting with a friend and mentor who’s kicked some wonderful goals in her career, I was given some great advice: reflect on your values and why you’re doing what you do. Awards and recognition are never at the front of our minds when we’re sending that umpteenth email (which you know will be ignored), when we’re stressing about deadlines or how many people are going to turn up to our event. When we’re putting in all the work behind the scenes, the stuff that isn’t instagrammable and which makes up the foundation for the success. We do those things because we’re driven by passion, by a greater sense of purpose, a want to contribute to our field or to give back to the community.

And it’s not to say that it won’t still hurt if people don’t show up or don’t celebrate our wins with us. Of course it does. We’re only human. But, as much as possible, let’s remember why we started. Remember our vision. Surround ourselves with people who love and support us unconditionally.

But most of all: stand by your success. You’ve earned it.

​The 100 Women of Influence dinner took place on 22 October 2019 and it was a great evening. To have a space set aside to celebrate the hard work women do was very much appreciated. Most of all, to be in an environment which actively promoted and celebrated female success, and by doing so, allowed us to be ourselves was a rare treat. A huge congratulations to the category winners for your tireless efforts to make the world a better place, and to the other young women, who clapped for every nominee and celebrated relentlessly on the night. We need more of that energy, never lose that passion or that allyship.

This article originally appeared on Women's Agenda, and can be viewed here.

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