When I was 13, I’d see high school kids walk by and think, when I’m their age, when I’m 17, I’ll have it all figured out. I’ll know how to talk to boys; those girls will want to hang out with me. And then I got to 17, and… things were even more confusing.
This kept happening — at every stage of my life, I kept waiting to ‘get there’. As I got older, different friends started going through different stages at different times.
These days, half my WhatsApp chats have photos of New babies! Engaged! Weddings! The other half have photos from friends who are travelling through Colombia or Ethiopia or screenshots of text messages from friends who are dating here in London.
As it turns out, we’re all still figuring things out at our own crossroads.
Single friends are dealing with people on dating apps who aren’t ready for commitment but still want to ‘hang out’.
Married friends are dealing with, do I move countries because my husband got a job offer in Singapore, what does that mean for my career.
Friends who choose not to have kids are dealing with sexism as they make their way up the career ladder.
In many ways, we’re all still looking for 17-year-olds to walk down the hallway and give us something to aim for.
Maybe because there is still so much further for us to go as women, we’re forever hungry for role models we’re not going to find until we realise we have to become them — because the old scripts don’t work.
Today there were three quick stories I wanted to share.
The first is about a dinner party a few years back, the second is about a career change platform I worked at in my twenties, and the third is from a Makers event we ran recently.
A few years ago, some friends and I were discussing salaries at a dinner party as part of a broader conversation about how much the rental market had changed. When my salary came up, a banker friend said to me, “I couldn’t even pay my rent on that.” She meant it as an encouragement — she was telling me to ask for a raise.
But what struck me then was that we’re at a unique point in history where we really don’t have the same working world our mothers did. We can work in a way they didn’t get the chance to — that’s empowering and tiring — because now we’re putting pressure on ourselves in both realms and competing in both spheres.
Only a few decades ago, the quintessential housewife stayed at home to raise kids and cook and clean, supporting the man as he went out to achieve his dreams. A woman’s world was narrowed to the one inside the home, and she was meant to find fulfilment in serving her husband and children.
Then as more women entered the workforce, the 1990s saw the concept of the ideal woman morph into one of becoming a ‘superwoman’ — the woman who could dominate professionally as well as being the domestic caregiver of the 1950s.
These days, it’s not only about following your passion, being smart, leaning in, and de-sexualising yourself to be taken seriously at work — it’s about not forgetting to be sexy outside of work, finding a partner, keeping that partner and having babies (or justifying why you’re not) and making sure those babies have an organic diet and limited screen time.
In this era where we’re getting stretched in all directions and more susceptible than ever to burnout, learning to take care of ourselves has never been more necessary. Now more than ever, resilience is what we all need: the ability to bounce back.
Resilience isn’t something you’re either born with or not. It’s a toughness, and the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties. It’s something you can develop like a muscle. When I looked it up on Wikipedia in preparation for this talk, I learned that:
When people are faced with difficulty, there are three ways in which they can approach the situation — erupt with anger; implode with overwhelming negative emotions, go numb, and become unable to react; simply become upset about the disruptive change.
Only the third approach works when it comes to developing resilience. The first and second approaches lead people to adopt the victim role. Only by taking the third option — becoming upset — do people become stronger over time.
The second story is from when I worked at Escape the City.
This is a career change platform where I got to talk to hundreds of people who were unhappy in their jobs. I’ll always remember these two lawyers who used to come to events — one was always ‘fine’; the other one had a series of breakdowns and then reinvented himself as an entrepreneur.
What I learned is until you let yourself have your crisis — or as I called it your Eat Pray Love moment — until you let yourself go through that, you’re not going to get to the other side of it. If you stay in denial and remain “fine” then nothing changes.
It’s when you’re in crisis mode that you’re vulnerable. When things fall apart, and we feel most powerless, that’s actually the first step towards becoming more powerful.
It’s when people have their Eat Pray Love moment that they take time off. Or talk to a coach. Or a therapist. Or move back in with their parents. It’s when they seek the support they need to make big changes.
I saw the importance of coaching and therapy from working at Escape. I saw that it’s an art form to listen to yourself without judgment.
I met a lot of corporate professionals who thought working in charity would save them then I’d talk to charity workers who were sick of being in the field because of bureaucracy.
A lot of people thought — when I change the external, the internal will change. Sometimes that works. But a lot of the time, we go around blaming the external instead of facing ourselves.
What I saw at Escape (and didn’t judge because each woman has the right to live how she chooses) is that a lot of the female members treated motherhood as their escape route from their job.
If they didn’t figure their career out now, well, they’d have kids, and that would become their meaning. A lot of female entrepreneurs I know chose to start their own businesses because they wanted to set their own hours.
Now that I’m older and I see some of the stereotypes that working mothers face, I question whether all stay-at-home mothers made that choice or whether current or prospective employers made it for them by refusing to be flexible, excluding them from interesting assignments or simply assuming that because they had kids, they would be less committed to the job.
These are questions that our generation will have to deal with, and I hope that as a generation of empowered and educated women, we’ll redefine not only what a workplace looks like but how work feels.
The third story I wanted to share is from an event we ran recently here at Makers.
I was at a Q&A — a regular event we run to showcase the course — speaking to several women in a row who were prospective students. And each of them was so nervous about coming in for an interview… so nervous about their pairing sessions that they almost didn’t want to come.
I noticed this at Escape, too, that women often adopt a fixed mindset. You’re perfect, or you’re worthless. Here at Makers, we preach the growth mindset — you have to fall before you can walk, and you have to make a couple of mistakes as part of the learning journey.
You can’t ever learn without stumbling at some points along the way. Confidence comes from doing things and being okay with making mistakes. You need to create your own space for yourself — to figure out what makes you tick. Virginia Woolf famously said that we need a room of one’s own. These days, I think we need to create that metaphorical room.
For some women, it’s an hour in the gym. For others, it’s a trip to the countryside. For me, it’s having a couple of hours to write each day and speaking to a therapist when necessary. That is my metaphorical room, my space to process life so that I can respond to it instead of reacting to it. It’s also a space to think about the big questions:
In ten years, who do you want to be? What do you want to create? The clearer that vision is, the more you find energy when you get knocked back, because that will happen — at some point, things will knock you down.
On the path to figuring out those answers, you may come across not only men who feel threatened by your success but some women who might want to make you feel smaller so they can feel better. And you will have to be your own cheerleader.
What I know for sure is that the fight for equal rights isn’t over — but it’s a different battle than what our predecessors fought for.
Previous generations have fought for the rights we enjoy today. We’ve got the right to vote, but we’ve never had a female American president. We’ve got the right to work, but we still haven’t got nearly enough women running FTSE100 companies. We’ve got the right to start our own businesses, but only 2% of venture funding goes to female founders.
Each generation of women paves the way for the next. To get “there” — we can’t give up. Or go numb. Or erupt in anger. We need to — like Wikipedia pointed out — get upset. We need to let ourselves go into crisis mode and have our collective Eat Pray Love moment so that we come out the other side. At least that’s what I’m taking with me on this International Women’s Day.