“It takes a while to understand your worth.” Those are words written by the singer/songwriter Florence Welch for her piece published in the July edition of British Vogue. It’s a sentence that jumped out at me and made me think about worth–how and when we see it in ourselves.
Knowing our worth isn’t something we inherently understand. Melinda Gates said, “A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” Life experiences tend to chip away at our self-esteem and antiquated social norms have, in the past, made us question our right to sit at any table. The stories little girls were told as compared to the stories little boys were told were vastly different. Even in my generation girls were expected to be softer, empathic, and quieter, especially about ambition. Boys were taught to be strong, loud, go-getters, and as ambitious as can be. In fact, the latter was demanded. And while the messages we send our sons and daughters are different today, many of us are still dealing with an old guard (either in the form of management or mentality) uncomfortable with change. But survival means evolution and that includes the way we think.
One of the things we see more now is an understanding of the language that is used to reflect how we see ourselves. When Beto O’Rourke discussed his run for President of the United States in a Vanity Fair interview in April, the Democrat said, “I want to be in it. Man, I was just born to be in it.” He would go on to add, “I think I’d be good at it.” Confident words selling a candidate with little political experience and confident words from a candidate who had just lost a senate race to the Republican Ted Cruz. Commentators, female commentators I would add, noticed the apparent double standard, stating women would just never say something so blatant and ambitious. NBC reporter Kasie Hunt tweeted shortly after that interview with O’Rourke was published, “I’m imagining Hillary Clinton giving the same quote and wondering about the reaction.” And that reaction, according to a study done by Harvard Kennedy School called The Price of Power: Power Seeking And Backlash Against Female Politicians, found “voters less likely to vote for female politicians when they perceive them as power-seeking, though male politicians are not penalized.” The study added, “When female politicians were described as power-seeking, participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.” Women are encouraged to strive but not be vocal about our achievements.
While Washington tends to err on conservative thinking, Hollywood is slowly seeing progressive and powerful language spoken by female executives. Media powerhouse Reese Witherspoon told the Wall Street Journal, “I know I’m good at things. I’m over being bashful about it.” She continues to say, “Do basketball players have to sit there and act coy? Tell me something: Does LeBron James twiddle his thumbs and say, ‘Jeez, I’m kind of great at shooting, and I guess I’m OK at dribbling and passing’? No, he’s like, ‘I’m amazing! I rock!’ I wish more actresses had that kind of bravado.
Writer, actress, producer, show runner, Mindy Kaling, has also talked about defying stereotypes and expectations saying in the New York Times, “I don’t care that much about playing characters that are likable. I mean, people are uncomfortable with women playing hard comedy parts. They’re fine with women playing likable losers who have high-powered jobs but are schlubs who aren’t glamorous or owning their sexuality.” Kaling goes on to say, “the character that we’re writing for the Netflix show that I’m working on right now is also a hothead. That character is not me, but there are similarities. One of the things I wanted was for her to be a hothead because it is so unacceptable in society to be an angry Asian woman. You’re supposed to be demure and agreeable. I always had so much impatience and ambition — these things that if you had them, you were supposed to have them secretly.”
The women I worked with in the past, women like Christiane Amanpour were mentors to me because I looked to them to teach me how to navigate my way through the news business. When I would be approaching a discussion with a manager or wanting to broach an idea with a boss I would think in my head, “what would Christiane do?” She represented everything I wanted to be for myself: strong, independent, fearless, and bold. But here’s the key—I wanted and I knew that in order for me to be comfortable in being confident, I had to earn to be that way. I had to earn the right to use that confident voice, those words, that emotion. I had to earn it for me. I had to earn it so that I felt in every fibre of my being that my strength, my determination, my ambition, my right to speak out for what I believed I deserved came from a voice of credibility. It would then be a voice and position that I felt no one could challenge or question. See, when we are fighting for what is right for us, the strength comes from our experience, an experience of knowing and doing.
Christiane once said, “Know that there’s no such thing as an overnight success. It comes with enormous hard work and commitment and sacrifice. And know that the only way to be good at something is to love what you do and to really put in that leg work. Because in the end, your credibility is built on your experience and on the trust with which others view you.” Christiane earned hers by working hard, braving war zones, facing dictators, and taking a stand against injustice. I earned mine by checking my ego at the door and working for free when I was starting out, getting coffees. I earned my credibility by doing brutal shifts, working weekends and holidays, fronting 3 hour news programmes and breaking news, reporting on stories in challenging conditions, doing tough interviews, learning lessons from mistakes and getting up the next day to face the world all over again. I did it to earn the credibility. Every job, every assignment was a bow in my arsenal. So when the time came for me to ask for more compensation or stand up for myself I did so with my track record backing me.
I am continuing to earn my credibility. Every day. It never ends. Entering the world of blogging has been a whole new ball game for me. While before I could hide behind cameras and a huge brand, today I only have myself–my words, my thoughts, my ideas. And what helps me push “publish” every time I write a post or choose articles for The Citrine Room, is my experience.
While I have always believed my work should speak for itself, I have had to be a cheerleader for myself to make sure my accomplishments get seen and heard. It’s something I struggle with even today but I know no one else is going to do it for me and frankly, no one knows me better than me. In the past, my strength wasn’t always met with respect. In fact, there were times when I was told “who do you think you are?” Or I was even patronised by some bosses jokingly saying, “oh Monita, I love your honesty”, in a voice where I knew they didn’t love it at all because I wasn’t expected to say what I really thought. I was expected to do as I was told. Yet, if I was a man, my honesty would be respected and yes, even admired. And I would be heard. Witherspoon told the WSJ that despite having two blockbuster films on screens, films her production company commissioned and produced, films that garnered awards (Gone Girl and Wild), it took a third successful outcome, her “hat trick” as she describes it, (the tv series Big Little Lies) to really be taken seriously as a power player, saying, “I wasn’t being offered opportunities to grow my company until I got that third hit…A guy has one hit at Sundance, and he gets Jurassic World.”
I keep repeating Florence Welch’s words in my head: “it takes a while to understand your worth.” And she’s right. I realised there are two types of self-worth. We are born with an openness to the world around us, wide-eyed and embracing life. If we are lucky we have parent/s who shower us with affection and love. We are cradled with security so that we have the stable foundation to grow and find ourselves. And our worth, as we grow up, stems from a basic understanding that we matter not because of gender but because we exist. It’s a lesson we have to keep learning and reminding ourself with each experience, mistake, with each heartbreak and each failure. And the more we learn, the more we can build our stockpile of self-esteem because as Maya Angelou said,
“When you know you are of worth — not asking it but knowing it — you walk into a room with a particular power.
When you know you are of worth, you don’t have to raise your voice, you don’t have to become rude, you don’t have to become vulgar; you just are. And you are like the sky is, as the air is, the same way water is wet. It doesn’t have to protest.”
Then there is the second type of worth, professional worth. In today’s society we still have to state our worth boldly and bodaciously. And that is by changing the way we not only see ourselves but also how we speak about ourselves, a language borne out of a recognition of the work we put into ourselves, into our careers in order to achieve. Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Christiane Amanpour have the language to speak with confidence because they have proven their professional worth with their successes, with the lessons they have learned through challenges, lessons they have implemented as they worked and continue to work their way towards achieving their goals. The same goes for each of us. Everything we do, how hard we work, it all matters. It all adds up. Once the evidence is there, we can do what Beyonce, the Queen B herself, says to do, “Power is not given to you. You have to take it.” How you define power is up to you. For me, the power lies in when we finally know and understand our worth.