Fitting in Without Losing Yourself
© 2021 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, January/February issue, 2021
“Do you want us to leave out the earrings?”
It took me a minute to process the editor’s question. But finally my brain caught up. I’d just been hired as a columnist at Flying magazine—the first woman to land that position in the magazine’s 72-year history. And since every columnist had an illustration of themselves at the top of their column, I’d sent in a photo of myself—with gold loop earrings dangling jauntily from my ears. The editor was offering to leave the earrings out of the illustration because I was going to have a tough enough time getting respect and being taken seriously by a readership that was 96% male and had never encountered a woman columnist before. Perhaps not calling attention to such a clearly feminine accessory would help.
Ten years earlier, I would have agreed with him. I learned to fly in my 20s by exchanging work on antique aircraft for flying lessons. Soon after that, I started dating a guy whose life revolved around World War II “warbirds.” It was exciting, but if aviation was a male-dominated world, the warbird crowd was all that, on steroids.
In the warbird world, women were usually the side show. But I desperately wanted to be seen and respected as an equal. And in my mind, that meant being as much like the men as possible. Wearing jeans and t-shirts all the time. Being tough. And not creating a fuss. If guys made comments that were denigrating toward women, minorities, or anyone “different,” I learned quickly that if I said anything, it was seen as proof that I was different, myself. So I learned to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself.
The results were both surprising and predictable. On the one hand, I learned an incredible amount about flying and airplanes knowledge that would prove useful in my writing career. I also learned a lot about men. The upside to speaking less is that you can listen and observe more, which gave me valuable insights into how male culture worked. Over time, I also earned a fair amount of respect from the men in that world. But it came at a cost.
It occurred so gradually that I didn’t even recognize what was happening, at the time. But a few years later, I realized with a shock that in trying so hard to prove myself and fit in, I’d unwittingly become such a diminished and guarded version of myself that I wasn’t even sure who the full “me” was, anymore. So I left. I broke up with the guy I’d been dating, sold my airplane, and spent the next four years trying to find my core self and voice again, figure out where to head next, and decide if I even wanted anything more to do with aviation.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to the story of those four years than I can tell here. The hardest part was, I’d thought I knew myself well when I learned to fly. But one of the humbling lessons I’ve learned is that holding on to that grounded sense of authentic self and voice is like staying in physical shape. It takes constant effort and vigilance, or we can lose it—especially if we’re working in an industry where every day is a cross-cultural challenge.
Getting back in shape took time. But I eventually re-established a strong core sense of who I was, as well as what elements were most important for me to have in any professional or personal path, going forward. I also discovered new things about myself, including the fact that, while jeans and t-shirts were useful when flying or working on airplanes, I also loved wearing sundresses, skirts … and gold loop earrings.
Most importantly, however, I learned to trust my own standards for what constituted a respect-worthy human and professional woman. If that wasn’t good enough for those around me, chances were I was in the wrong place.
In the end, I also decided I wanted to give aviation a second try, so I bought another airplane and got the job at Flying. Which brings me back to the earrings. I understood the editor’s point. But I’d promised myself I’d only get back into aviation if I could do it without losing myself again. And promises aren’t much good if you cut and run the first time they’re tested. So I only paused for a moment. “No,” I answered. “Keep the earrings. They’re part of who I am. I fly airplanes, and I wear earrings. If someone can’t handle that, it’s their problem, not mine.”
But here’s the amazing part; the really important lesson in this story. Ironically, it was by finding the courage to be what felt true and essential to me that I ended up getting the respect and support I needed to succeed at that job. As it turns out, I didn’t need to “fit in.” I just had to find points of connection and common ground with my colleagues and readers. I needed to show them that I saw, respected, and honestly cared about some of the same things that mattered to them, even if I wasn’t exactly like them. And I was able to do that far more successfully once I stopped worrying about fitting in and just started being myself.
Why was that? I think it’s because if you’ve done the work to figure out who you really are and what matters most to you, and you’re at peace with that, you can relax. You still have to make sure you’re bringing your “A” game, so you’re seen as capable and reliable. But you don’t have to put energy into defending the fort or worrying about how others see you. And that opens up a world of abilities and options.
For starters, it lets you pay more attention to those around you: what matters to them, what cultural norms they use to communicate, and who among them might be trustworthy and supportive, as well as those you need to keep at bay. That knowledge matters, because it enables you to build the kind of bridges essential to surviving and succeeding in a male-dominated environment. You can also figure out what battles are truly important to fight and let the rest slide. You become more resilient and flexible. And you exude a far stronger kind of grounded power and leadership than a woman who’s fighting every battle, trying to prove how strong she is.
How do you gain that kind of core strength and knowledge? There’s no easy 3-step method. But there are some key ingredients to the recipe: expanding our knowledge and self-awareness, clarifying our priorities and vision, developing flexibility in our perspective and responses, and bringing an explorer’s mindset to our daily lives, to name a few. What that means, and how to achieve it, is what this column will focus on in the months to come.