As a professional woman who has spent nearly every day of my almost 25 year career feeling like I would be “found out” to be the fraud I really am, I have always been fascinated by the different ways men and women behave in the workplace. Even long before I had kids or was even thinking of having kids, I struggled to understand if I truly lacked the tenacity that my male counterparts possessed or if I was stymied by something more significant. Regardless, I have always suffered from a low supply of confidence at work and struggled to muster the courage to ask for what I wanted. Year after year the problem perpetuated and I became more disenchanted and equally perplexed by my difficulties. It was just a few years back – before Sheryl Sandberg started encouraging us all to “lean in” – that I began to realize that this issue was not unique to me. It was more than just, perhaps, the lack of confidence-boosting during my upbringing or the low self-esteem that haunted me throughout my young life. There were women all around me in the very same boat. We all were feeling a few steps back, lacking the “balls” to make big decisions or stand up for ourselves. And, while there have been many articles saying that women step on each other as they climb the corporate ladder, most of my experience has been that many of us cower in the corner and let the guys have a free reign. It seems uncharacteristic to the way I live the rest of my life but, for whatever reason, there is a hard-wiring that comes into play when I show up at work – even today – that prevents me from stepping up and taking the reins. Even when I know it is the right thing to do.
This topic has resurfaced recently for me, particularly because I have suddenly seen a stream of articles coming out, including The Confidence Gap from The Atlantic, highlighting this phenomenon that holds many women back. And, to add to that, I hear my friends talking about it more and more. We are at that age where we have paid our dues and earned our stripes and are more than worthy of whatever we set our sights on and yet we still feel less than. We believe that we might be more talented, more qualified, more capable, more efficient, more productive (I can go on and on) than our male colleagues but we still struggle to feel like we are worthy.
Last week I was out walking with one of my girlfriends – a working mom like me. We were talking about our respective workplaces and the challenges we face as women and, in particular, women with children. Working mothers have the added challenge and pressure that is mostly self-imposed. We are perfectionists. Perfectionists who realize we cannot be perfect so we live in this constant state of underachievement. We disappoint ourselves and judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever would. Sure, we are constantly being pulled in multiple directions which leaves us feeling like we can never work hard enough to make sure that we are meeting the demands of every part of our lives. We are in a perpetual state of guilt. “I’m sorry” is a staple in our vocabulary. We are forever apologetic for actually doing more than most of the men in our lives do but not actually doing as much as we expect ourselves to do. Invariably, we feel like failures. This is not a new story for any working moms and it seems that, despite all the efforts that are put in place to create equality in the workplace and all the training and development offered to women to help them advance and all the time spent trying to help managers understand the complexities of trying to “balance” work and family obligations (not just for women, by the way), the problem never stops surfacing and the challenges never get easier.
Frankly, I don’t believe it is a workplace problem. I think it is a societal problem. When my oldest son was just an infant, I attended a neighborhood block party and one of the moms, who did not work outside the home, asked me how I could possibly leave my child and return to work. I was startled by her comment because it was so rude and intrusive (I didn’t ask her how she could possibly stay at home and not provide financially for her family – an equally outrageous assertion) and because of how it was laced with so much judgment. I felt indicted. Everything I believed to be true was instantly in question and, despite the fact that I never once questioned whether or not I would return to work after my children came along, I suddenly had doubts about my choices. No one should have to feel that way. The problems only get worse as the children get older. Those of us who do work outside the home don’t necessarily have the same time to commit to school activities like plays and fundraisers and lunch aid duties and there is no shortage of guilt surrounding our absence – again mostly self-imposed. (Well, the guilt can be fueled by some moms who constantly ask you why you never volunteer or offer the always delightful “Oh! YOU’RE Tommy’s mom!”). If I am already programmed to feel bad about myself the minute I leave the house because I wrestling with the decisions I have made and worried about dividing my time between work and kids, I’m definitely starting off at a disadvantage.
But, take kids out of the equation. It is even bigger than that. We talk all the time about how girls are raised. Today, things are becoming different but we still live in a patriarchal world. And, even though women outnumber men obtaining degrees and they certainly outnumber men entering into the workforce, the air thins out substantially as you rise to more powerful perches. We are not demonstrating to women that they can be more. We are still struggling to teach girls how to stand up for themselves and feel empowered right next to the messages telling them to be sexy and cater to men. It is a constant struggle and I believe that we, as a gender, have evolved to become genetically hard-wired to not be confident when we are put in situations with men. We hand over power far too easily. Yes, that might be a gross generalization but do the research. It’s all there. There are plenty of women who are powerful but I guarantee if you ask them what goes through their head, they, too, feel like frauds. They just do a much better job of covering it.
For me, personally, confidence comes and goes. Sometimes I walk around thinking I am the queen of the universe and have it all figured out and sometimes I am deep in a hole of self-doubt feeling voiceless and powerless against all around me. And, the struggle for me seems to get more difficult as time goes by. I was certain that by the time my kids were old enough to walk home from school, tend to their homework without supervision and had cell phones to communicate with me that I would be able to exhale just a little bit. On the contrary, as my old boss at Working Mother magazine told me, way back when my youngest had just been born, the troubles only get worse. The demands only increase. The less your kids think they need you, the more they actually do. I couldn’t understand her point of view when I was struggling to get a full night of sleep tending to an infant and a preschooler but I never forgot her words. I knew implicitly that they would resonate for me at some point down the road. Today is that day.
I’m not sure what the bigger challenge is, frankly. First, the guilt over not being present enough or having the time or energy to commit as much as I would like to my mothering is omnipresent. Then, equally consuming is my inability to feel confident in how I am showing up at work. I just can’t get past the second-guessing, the emotional tug-of-war with my family and my inherent fear of being found out. I work with a guy who simply doesn’t care what people think. He’s polite and respectful enough when he needs to be but he pushes his way into situations when he believes he belongs there. I ask for permission. He makes a decision and deals with the repercussions afterwards. I ask for permission. He disregards other people’s expectations and does what he thinks is best. I ask for permission. He’s a foreign concept to me. I am probably really frustrating to him. Yet, we are both strong, smart, capable, experienced, accomplished, talented, visionary and, to different degrees, successful. He is confident. I ask for permission. When it comes time to stand up for myself, when the time is right for me to let my voice be heard, I am silent. I am fearful. I suffer a crisis of confidence.
When I was chatting with my friend last week, she shared her experience of self-doubt in her industry. I marveled at this because she has a PhD! She is as accomplished as anyone I have ever met. She is brilliant and savvy and has over 20 years of experience. What she told me was that she finally felt, after all the years in her industry, that she might now be taken seriously. All the degrees, all of the accomplishments and, at nearly 50 years old, she was just now beginning to feel confident enough to believe that she has the gravitas she deserves. And, if she were being completely candid, she would probably tell me that she doesn’t really have all the gravitas she thinks she deserves because she still has some self-doubt. It’s unbelievable to me and yet completely plausible.
While I always like to wrap things up with steps towards a solution, I really don’t have any in this case because it is a never-ending struggle. I take it day-by-day and situation-by-situation, hoping that it will only get easier over time. I know I have many reasons to be confident and often rely upon my husband to provide the male perspective and help me understand how my behavior might be perceived. Yet, theres on 12-step program to being a more confident female in the workplace or to being a better working mother. But, I have an awareness and sensitivity that hopefully makes me more aware of this for myself and others.
And, as everything always begins and ends with my kids because I am always a mother first, I reflect on a conversation with my younger son yesterday. My family was sitting together playing a game and it was clear that my younger son was about to lose. He looked around at us and very seriously said, “This makes sense. I would lose. I always lose. It fits me perfectly.” His face turned red and I wanted to throw up. I felt the pain emanating out of him and wanted to scoop him up and protect him from the world. “You are not a loser,” I said to him in the most comforting way I could. That boy is me and I knew exactly what was coursing through his brain. “You are confident and awesome.” He looked like he was going to cry and I knew he couldn’t feel my words. And I knew exactly what he felt like. He felt exactly how I feel when I am at work and am absolutely certain that I am making a mess of everything. I feel like a loser and I get to come home to him to remind me that I am confident and awesome.