In order for women to achieve, we must receive. Part of the gender gap in leadership is work/life issues related to women’s roles in families as caregivers; part is discrimination; and part, I believe, is related to how we receive good fortune. For many women, good fortune seems to provoke an anxiety attack. Just read this Psychology Today piece on women and the “impostor syndrome.”
Me during my CNN days….
I’ll offer my own experience as an example. As a journalist, I took my knocks but was also given extraordinary opportunities. Every single time I got something I think I didn’t deserved, or wasn’t sure I could handle, I questioned it and often sabotaged it. It could be a seat on a for- or non-profit board; an award; a TV gig; a powerful ally… whatever. I questioned my “unearned advantages.” (First, not all were unearned. Second, opportunity about is transforming “unearned advantages” into well-earned success.)
What I learned from a male friend is, in his opinion, as a manager, women and people of color question what we see as “unearned advantages” in ways that few white men do. In his time offering promotions at a mid-sized but influential organization, he said no woman or person of color ever asked for more money… and every white man did.
Our worth comes from such a deep place… a sense of expectations about where we fit in society and what society has to offer us. I grew up in what I would call a “striver” household and family, where the expectations of our elders propelled us forward with frightening velocity. One year I was buying un-ironic and un-hip secondhand clothes with my family because they were cheaper. The next year, when I went to Harvard, I was buying funky, fun, secondhand clothes from Dollar a Pound because all the cool kids wore them. (That was pre-bedbugs ‘n all.)
I found myself, not just at an Ivy League school but in my journalism workplaces, questioning how I fit into an elite. That’s one reason I often chose projects — like my first book, Don’t Believe the Hype — that challenged my own industry.
Over time, I found myself wearied by the battles but still unwilling to cease the fight (for whatever I felt was right, no matter how important or trivial). I moved up the ladder but the stress ratcheted up as I did. I worked in some newsrooms where, according to my colleagues, sexual favors were traded for advancement; and where in other parts of the same newsroom you’d find a “news widow” (a loaded, pejorative term) who had, by the perception of those around her, sacrificed any partnership or personal happiness for her work.
For someone, like me, who worked in big-name outlets in my twenties, it was terrifying to see the scylla and charybdis of these two archetypes — the working-woman-as-whore and the working-woman-as-bitter-spinster. I am relying here on secondhand reports from my trusted colleagues. That is, in many ways, my point. Women who work in male-dominated professions often live not just in glass houses, but in ones where that glass is tinted by the perception of each person walking by. I don’t know the ultimate truth about all of my workplaces, but I know this: the sexual politics seemed very fraught, and as I chose to battle racial issues in the workplace, I sort of let the gender issues run on a second server while the main processing power went to advancing coverage of politics and race.
Returning to the concept of receiving: I didn’t do well at receiving the positive aspects of how people rewarded my behavior, but I was hypersensitive to the inequities. What is that but a formula for disenchantment?
I’ve retained, or perhaps regained, my gusto for journalism by moving to what Marci Alboher refers to as “slash careers”. At this point, I consider myself a professor/journalist/author. I write, broadcast on radio and tv, and teach at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Right now I am working on three books: one, co-authored with Vivek Wadhwa, who conceived of the crowd-created book on women in technology and innovation (you can learn more here about participating); one I’ve been working on for a while on the move from linear to episodic careers, and how to feed your heart and wallet in this labor market; and one of young adult science fiction.
That’s right — YA science fiction. World building. New York 120 years in the future. Oh, it’s fun. And not quite what people who saw me on CNN in 1995 might expect from me. In a linear career, I’d be hosting a TV show. I’ve had many “career walkabouts” in my years, not all of them fun but all of them bringing me closer to my true sense of creativity and appreciation for communication in all its forms, journalistic and artistic.
I found it hard to receive some of the advantages of my early years as a working woman. But now I am receiving a dazzling array of input from my own heart and soul about what’s right for me. I received permission, from myself most of all, to pursue what really amazes me. Journalism still — especially the dramatic interplay these days of journalism and tech innovation. Beauty. Nature. The written word. Speculative fiction. Dreaming. Dreaming most of all. We can dream of a world where, if men and women can’t really have it all, we can at least proceed to what Martha Beck calls “the place beyond fear,” where we have walked through fire and come out better for it on the other side. I believe true leadership and innovation from women will come from that place where we claim all of ourselves, the fear and the infinite space beyond.