Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear (Michelle Obama, Becoming).
I was super confident when I was in high school. In fact , I was Miss Susie High School. You know, the annoying over-achiever type. President of the student council, editor of the yearbook, head of the formal committee, house vice-captain, lead in the school play and, of course, I consistently got good grades. I had a lot of opinions and wasn’t afraid of sharing them — I loved debate class, I would stand up for any kids I thought were being picked on and I was outspoken on women’s rights, which got me labelled a “feminazi” by the boys on more than one occasion.
I wasn’t one of the popular kids by any stretch, but I was well known amongst students and teachers alike and was voted most likely to become Prime Minister in the school yearbook. In high school I thought the world was at my feet and I was going to make a mark.
But now, I am in my mid-30s and it hasn’t happened. It’s not like I am failing — I have a good job, a good marriage and I think I’m a pretty good mother to my young son — but I’m not at the top of my game. I am not progressing. While I see my peers publishing books, running businesses or with titles like “Senior Director”, I am a very tiny cog in very big wheel and I haven’t reached the lofty heights that I expected of myself — or that I was told I would reach by my teachers and other adults in my life. I feel like I am coasting in mediocrity, being swept along by the stream of time.
Perhaps I wasn’t destined to be a big-shot — not everyone is. And you know what? I can live with that. I have had some amazing life experiences that cannot be replaced by status or money. But what weighs on my minds is that I feel like I have lost my confidence, my je ne sais quoi. I was brimming with confidence at school but over the years it has waned. I find myself doubting my abilities, I hesitate to speak in meetings and networking events cause me to all but break out in hives.
More importantly, I feel like I have lost my voice. I have lost my ability to speak up and speak out. Somehow, I have come to believe that I have nothing worthy to say. I look back at the girl I used to be and hardly recognise her.
It is well documented that in the world of work there is a vast confidence gap between the sexes. Numerous studies have consistently shown that when asked to rate their performance, women underestimate their abilities, while men overestimate theirs. In fact, Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told The Atlantic that when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to one in which men and women are asked to predict how they will do on a variety of tasks. The are unwaveringly consistent – men consistently overestimate their abilities and subsequent performance, and that the women routinely underestimate both.
Studies have also shown that men will apply for a job as long as they meet 60 percent of the job requirements, whereas women won’t apply until they believe they meet 100 percent of the required qualifications. Unqualified and under-prepared men think nothing of “having a go”, while women only feel confident when they are perfect.
Reading all of this research on the gender confidence gap, it made me wonder — is this what I am experiencing? Am I afraid to use my voice because I have internalised the belief I must be perfect before I can speak or participate? But then, if indeed I am suffering from the crisis of confidence that seems to plague my gender, how does that explain the abundance of confidence I seemed to have as a young woman and where did it go?
A report by The Atlantic on the confidence gap looked precisely at how school years— including the classroom, the playground and the sports field — shape our perceptions of performance in later years. School, it is argued, is where many girls are first rewarded for being good and praised for being “perfect”, instead of energetic, rambunctious or pushy. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. As a result, they become averse to taking risks and making mistakes. As Carol Dweck, a a Stanford psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success explained to The Atlantic, boys and girls receive different patterns of feedback: “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she said, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.”
Meanwhile, fewer girls participate in athletics, and those who do drop out earlier, leading them to miss out on important lessons in competition and even roughhousing. Boys learn to not just revel in their wins, but to dismiss their losses.
While being a “good girl” may pay off in the classroom, it doesn’t prepare us very well for the real world. As Carol Dweck put it: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.” In the office, women are not rewarded for being punctual, well mannered and “good” and their confidence takes a beating as a result.
I can see how being the “good” girl, which served me so well at school, has not translated to the workplace. Indeed, when I started my first job — as the youngest member of a competitive government training programme — I was ultra concious of not being the arrogant millenial who thinks they know everything before they have any actual experience. And so, I took it upon myself to listen and learn, to not speak until I was 100 percent sure about what I was saying. However, at work, silence is not interpreted as thoughtfulness, but as ignorance. Speak up, make yourself noticed, or get left behind.
Throw in some old fashioned sexism and my confidence took a beating right from the get-go. While I was passionate and outspoken about injustices in my youth, it is much easier to argue with a bunch of doofus teenage boys than it is to push back against a senior male colleague when you are a young woman trying to make a good impression.
Despite always being the “responsible” one at school who the teachers trusted, my senior male colleagues at work would joke that if they were away from the office they would leave a chair — an inanimate object — in charge rather than me.
Despite receiving praise for how I represented my school in various forums, the first time I represented my employer in a big meeting the head of another department commented, to my face, “why did they send the new girl”, as though my presence was an insult.
Despite being told at school that women can do anything, when I was in an all-female project team at work, I was told by our (male) management that we were doomed to fail because no one wanted to listen to a bunch of women. They thought they were doing us a favour when they recruited a male for our team, even though he was the least qualified of all of us.
I recently read a quote from the recent winner of the Miss Universe pageant, Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa. She said in her winning answer that “We should be teaching young girls to take up space. Nothing is as important as taking up space in society and cementing yourself.” Looking back, I realise that while I did receive encouragement as a young girl, as an adult I have been discouraged from taking up space and I have not fought back. I have been so stuck on the idea of being the good girl, so eager to please, that I have taken to laughing the insults off, while taking them to heart.
When I left my last job in New York to make the move to Beirut some of my colleagues who were good friends gave me a picture of the “Fearless Girl”, the bronze statue in New York that was placed facing the charging bull statue. It made me cry to think that my friends would even associate the idea of the Fearless Girls with me. And so I resolved to once again find the fearless girl within myself. As a baby step that involves blogging. I love to write and I always tell myself that I need to channel that love in some way – but I procrastinate and procrastinate on it. I guess it is an excuse to cover my fear of speaking out and sharing my thoughts. I will never be an over-sharer by any stretch, but I recognise that by hesitating to use my voice, the person that I am hurting the most is myself. That all changes today.