By Bhavana Bartholf, Chief Digital & Transformation Officer for Microsoft Commercial Solution Areas (Global)

Portrait of elegant businesswoman using digital tablet with wireless earphones while standing by desk in office or at home

As we all continue to adjust to life with the pandemic, 2022 is off to an interesting start. I hope you have taken the time to reflect and recognize the importance of mental health and your personal well-being. In addition, I hope you have made the space to take the time to recognize what is a priority for you. I’m grateful to be back for this edition of the Profiles in Diversity Journal to share part 3 of my Advocate for Yourself series.

Let’s start with the question: WHAT continues to hold us back from asking for what we want? Decades of research show that women continue to struggle with having the confidence to go after what they want and speak up for themselves. In fact, research shows that by age 14 women lose confidence in the power of their voice. I’ve spent nearly a quarter century in corporate America, and through my conversations with women at various stages of their journey, I have learned that their struggle with self-advocacy is centered around guilt in prioritizing themselves, fundamental anxiety, and/or fear of the unknown.

How is this possible with so many highly educated and intrinsically talented women everywhere? We must make progress. And progress starts with laying the foundation to teach women how they can work through building their confidence and courage to advocate for themselves, so they are inspired to dream—and dream BIG.

So HOW do we get there? It starts with taking the foundational steps that will give you the resources you need to feel confident, so you can ask for what you want. Based on decades of experience gained during my own journey, as well as conversations with other women at various stages of their careers, I would like to offer the 5 Steps for How to Advocate for Yourself:

  1. Believe in yourself
  2. Be proud of your journey
  3. Know that you always have a choice
  4. Be brave and ask for what matters
  5. Find your pack

As I lay this out, I know it may seem pretty straightforward, but advocating for yourself can be easier said than done. In this article, I am going to unpack the first three steps. So let’s dig in….

Step 1–Believe in yourself

“You can’t BE what you can’t SEE.” I love this quote and it is so foundational to helping us recognize our potential and ability to dream. And it starts with YOU. Have you stopped to notice that women got everyone through the pandemic, and it still lingers on?

We have stepped up as mothers, homemakers, workers, bosses, teachers, nurses, caretakers, and more. As Melinda Gates shared recently that women are the world’s fallback plan—and … that the whole economy relies on the unpaid labor of women. This is huge! But as women, we underestimate how critical our skills are and the impact of the contributions we make. A lot of what we struggle with stems from needing validation from others to believe that we matter and we’re capable of doing something. We become discouraged and look at past limitations or failures, and tend to not challenge ourselves. This has to change.

Remember when you were little? You truly believed that you could do anything! Take a second to think about who you wanted to be. I am totally fine if you planned to be the next President or start your own secret society of Female Warriors. But that fire, that confidence that you could do whatever you set your mind to, is what I am encouraging you to reignite. Use that to reimagine what is possible and remember you have got it in you… so dream!

Step 2–Be proud of your journey

So many women struggle with this, and I can’t say it enough: It is so important to own who you are. Sharing your journey is about your life—personal and professional—and all the ups and downs that come with it. Your personal and work journeys shape your life and test you. It’s also not about being like everyone else. It’s about embracing the road you have been on that makes you, YOU. There have been times, as I take the interest to learn more about a person and stay curious, I find that the person is surprised at how powerful her story is.

As women, we sometimes look around and compare ourselves to others and focus on what we believe are our shortcomings. I know how tough it is to not do that, but your struggles are what have made you the amazing, one-and-only YOU! When you’re willing to be real and share your journey, you open up and the world opens up, too. This is how we create connection, and people get to know the real you and see what makes you unique.

When you can’t be your authentic self, it’s exhausting. My grandfather always reminded me that it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown. So, let’s not overwork ourselves. Just BE YOU!

Step 3–You always have a choice

As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest reasons we don’t advocate for ourselves is our fear of the unknown or feeling like we are stuck and don’t have options. I remember a situation in which I ended up working for a leader who was very confrontational and had values I didn’t align with. I remember clearly how overwhelmed, stuck, and demotivated I was. I struggled to recognize my options, as I wasn’t in a great place. I’m grateful for having a psychologist as a spouse who helped me recognize I felt this way because I was afraid of losing my job and I realized it had been a while since I had interviewed for a job. He encouraged me to work through my fear and asked me to look at ways I could handle it. That is when I realized I had so many options I had not considered.

This helped me take control of the situation. It was so empowering to know that I had options—some of them may not have been ideal, but at least I knew they were there.

Finally, as I said in my part 2 article, my hope is that going forward you seek ways to extend kindness to yourself. It starts with the courage to advocate for yourself. Remember, you don’t have to be anywhere where you are not valued. Believe in yourself. Be proud of your journey. Step up and speak out, and you’ll empower others to believe that they can do it, too. It takes each of us advocating for ourselves to help drive the change we want to see in our personal lives, in our workplaces, and in our world!

Please join me in the next issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal, where I’ll share the final steps that changed my life once I started advocating for myself.

Bhavana Bartholf

Bhavana Bartholf

Bhavana Bartholf is the Chief Digital & Transformation Officer for Microsoft Commercial Solutions Areas (Global) and a Profiles in Diversity Journal Woman Worth Watching in Leadership for 2021. This is the third article in her Advocating for Yourself series. Stay tuned for her final article in the upcoming issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal. She hopes to continue to stay in touch with PDJ readers through LinkedIn and welcomes opportunities to connect.