I'm reading
What happened to our confident 22-year-old selves?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What happened to our confident 22-year-old selves?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What happened to our confident 22-year-old selves?
Pass it on
Pass it on
9 November 2017

What happened to our confident 22-year-old selves?

Just like the schoolgirl who is told to stop being so ‘bossy’, women in senior jobs face a catch-22 situation. Do they want to be successful? Or do they want to be liked?

Written by Jamila Rizvi

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

I was twenty-two years old when I landed my first full-time job working for the prime minister. I was halfway through my university studies and about to conclude a term as student body president. I’d thrown myself into student politics like a woman possessed. Judging by how seriously I took my position, you might have thought I was running the United Nations, not a student union. Nonetheless, that position had opened me up to a whole new grown-up world of boards and meetings and staff and speeches and budgets. I was very important, I reasoned to myself. My pomposity was embarrassing. Starting a new academic year with only essays and take-home exams to occupy my mind wasn’t an option. I needed something to fill the gap. I needed a new challenge.

Over drinks one Saturday, my friend Maggie told me about a job that was about to become available: media assistant to Australia’s then new prime minister, Kevin Rudd. We were at an Irish pub in the city, surrounded by dozens of political types. It was one of those delicious spring days with a cloudless sky and a beaming sun, a cold bite to the breeze. My hair had blown simultaneously into my eyes and my pint of cider. I was gracefully trying to extract it as I nodded along at Maggie’s description of the role. She was doing an excellent but unnecessary sales job. I’d met Rudd at his 2020 Summit a few months back. I’d campaigned for him the previous year and been swept up by the possibility of the Kevin07 promise. I wanted that job. I would do whatever it took to get it.

And I did.

I’m thirty-one years old now. I’m a mother and a wife, with nine years more experience and nine years more knowledge than I had back then. I know that I will never again have that kind of confidence. The young woman in that story—the one who cold-called the prime minister’s office to make sure they’d definitely seen her resumé—is a stranger to me now. She’s cocky. She’s arrogant. She’s naïve. The wisdom of hindsight leaves me in equal parts horrified and impressed by her audacity. Unqualified and inexperienced, it was incredibly presumptive to apply for that job. But, annoying self-importance aside, you have to admit that 22-year-old me had serious chutzpah.

The workforce values different qualities to educational institutions. Being nice and behaving nicely doesn’t correlate with success at work. In fact, merit and effort don’t always correlate with success at work. Workplaces are inherently competitive and masculine structures, which require a different set of attributes to get ahead. Risk-taking, boldness and assertiveness get rewarded. They’re the qualities that help move employees up the hierarchy. Getting to the top requires employees to compete against one another to win. There isn’t a participation ribbon to recognise everyone who worked hard. There are no pats on the back for effort or good behaviour. You either get the job or you don’t. You win the client or you don’t. You get promoted or you don’t. It’s a win–lose tournament-style situation that was designed with men’s success in mind. As you would have thought, it also means that women tend to struggle.

Competing to win isn’t something girls are socialised to do well. While girls are good at competing to excel, competing to be victorious isn’t something many feel comfortable doing. Being overtly competitive is considered unladylike. The schoolgirl who wins everything all the time isn’t the most popular. In fact, she can be a social outcast. Some research suggests that competing to win is linked to depression and loneliness among teenage girls. It’s why you’ll often overhear women saying things like, ‘I’m just not a competitive person’, while men rarely make similar comments. Boys are encouraged to be comfortable with competing to win and to exhibit competitiveness openly. Former Harvard Medical School psychologist Lynn Margolies puts it like this:

Men are typically comfortable with competition and see winning as an essential part of the game, rarely feeling bad for others after a victory, and maintaining camaraderie with their buddies. Because women learn that they are not supposed to be competitive and win at others’ expense, their natural competitive spirit cannot be shared openly, happily, or even jokingly with other women…What could have been healthy competition becomes a secret feeling of envy and desire for the other to fail laced with guilt and shame.

In the workplace women are thrust into an environment where they are expected to compete and this throws them off course. They’re unsure of how to navigate such unfamiliar terrain. This is particularly the case with some corporate office environments, which tend to be not just competitive but downright combative. Negotiating a pay rise requires you to assert your own financial worth. Being promoted comes at the expense of someone else’s progression. If you want to be recognised for your contribution to a group project, you have to make sure your boss notices and gives you the credit. Assertiveness. Competitiveness. Attention-seeking behaviour. They’re personality traits expected—if not required—of employees who want to reach the top of their field. And they’re exactly what we praise boys for being—and encourage girls to avoid—during school.

Socially damned if we do. Professionally damned when we don’t.

Sometimes women feel pressure to behave in a way they’re not comfortable with in order to advance at work. This includes adopting typically ‘masculine’ behaviours that may run contrary to their skill set. Leadership opportunities are generally awarded to those who appear resilient, independent, determined, competitive and even aggressive. Promotions go to employees who actively and loudly advertise work they’ve done, rather than those who patiently wait to be noticed. It’s why a litany of books and articles exist instructing women how to stop sabotaging their own careers by behaving like they have been socialised to behave. These books instruct career-focused women how to abandon their pathetic, girly approach to the workplace and just be More Like Men.

In order to be taken more seriously, women are variously instructed to lower their voices, keep personal information private, create boundaries and avoid displaying overtly feminine behaviours like decorating their desks with personal affects. Other supposedly problematic behaviours of women include helping too much, sharing personal information with colleagues and—prepare to gasp—baking for colleagues’ birthdays. These books and articles tend to be written by men who are confused by the behaviour of women who have worked for them, or they’re written by women who have had to fight damn hard to make it in a man’s world. Their advice to young women hoping to be successful at work is to make their femininity a non-issue—by trying to eliminate it.

I have a lot of admiration for women who hold this view and give this advice. They are generally alpha women, self-assured, no-bullshit firecrackers. They’re personally comfortable operating in a traditionally ‘masculine’ way. In some respects, I think I’m one of them. Nonetheless, the advice to eliminate all signs of femininity in order to succeed doesn’t sit well with me. Surely the workplace is big enough and bad enough to accommodate an individual’s preferred approach to work. Women shouldn’t be expected to pretend they’re something they’re not in order to progress. That is a defining the double awfully narrow formula for success. While a preoccupation with being liked can hold women back—that doesn’t make it their fault. Nor should it mean women have to abandon nice behaviour entirely.

It doesn’t serve our society well for people to be deliberately cold or rude to their colleagues. Indeed, becoming friends with work-mates has been one of the great joys of my working life. I can’t bake at all, but I very much enjoy and appreciate it when someone else in the office does. And when it comes to decorating your workspace? Well, I’ll defend the desk presence of miniature cacti and photos of adorable offspring to anyone who will listen. Furthermore, the evidence shows that deliberately employing masculine traits doesn’t work for women, anyway. It’s not as if women whose personalities tend to the more masculine end of the spectrum are free from gendered stereotyping. These women face the same expectations as other women, and when they don’t conform, they’re punished.

The social penalty for women who display traditionally masculine traits at work can be severe. In one study, researchers compared the experiences of woman candidates for senior jobs with that of men. In that experiment, candidates who spoke without apology about their achievements and abilities were all judged to be highly capable by the interviewers. However, the women candidates were judged to be other things as well. Specifically, they were considered less socially attractive. The interviewers deemed these women to be competent, but not ‘nice’, and perhaps not a good ‘cultural’ fit for the job. The same kind of self-promotion didn’t affect the interviewers’ social perceptions of how ‘nice’ the men candidates were. Men who talk about their achievements are fine. Women? Not so much. Owning your success and vocalising that violates expectations of women’s likeability. Self-promotion does not a demure and modest woman make.

Taking all this advice and evidence into account, what have we got? Well, some women display typically masculine traits in order to advance professionally because that is what works for the blokes. Yet when they do, it jars with people’s expectations about how women should behave—so they’re penalised socially. They’re less popular. Less likeable. These negative stereotypes are even more pronounced—and kick in earlier in the hierarchy – for women who work in men-dominated industries like science, engineering, construction and technology. Just like the schoolgirl who is told to stop being so ‘bossy’, women in senior jobs face a catch-22 situation. They must make a choice. Do they want to be successful? Or do they want to be liked? They can’t possibly be both.

You can see why women lose confidence when they enter the workforce. They are at a loss about how to tackle structures that reward contrary behaviour to what they’ve been taught is valuable. It causes confusion and self-doubt. Remember, women are already more likely to feel they have a limited ability to impact on the world around them. So when the world around them—school—supported them and played to their strengths, they felt confident. And later, when the world around them—work—had completely different rules, their confidence evaporated.

This is an extract from Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi, published by Penguin Random House and available now, RRP $35.00

Jamila Rizvi

Jamila Rizvi is an author, presenter and political commentator. Described as one of the preeminent voices of young Australian women online, Jamila injects her own special brand of humour, irreverence and authenticity into the public debate.​

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Join the Dumbo Feather community
Skip to toolbar