Sure, I had supportive male colleagues and managers in my career, but it was two female colleagues who changed my whole perspective on what I was capable of. Two kick-ass female colleagues around 15 years older than me, with a strength and confidence in who they were — yet still struggling in some areas.
This was after six years in uniform with the Air Force, two years as a federal public servant and six months in one of the least supportive jobs I’ve ever had (yep, that’s saying something). I was working for a large, male-dominated, state government department — and the imposter syndrome was kicking in hard.
We were part of a senior management team, the first time I’d really had a group of other managers that I could chat with about the challenges I was facing, and how I might resolve them. Of course, I wasn’t doing that at first, because I didn’t want them to know I was struggling with anything.
I’m going to share with you the three things these wonderful women did for me that changed my life — three things I’ve tried to pay forward to other women in the workplace ever since.
Okay, so I’m a recovering perfectionist — some days I do better at it than others. I was playing a good game of not letting others see how much I was struggling. And the way I did that was by knowing everything; by being able to answer any and every question about my section.
So I walked into every management meeting ready to answer any question, and having read every paper. I was always so tense in those meetings; feeling like I wasn’t prepared enough and didn’t know enough.
About four months into that job it all changed. That was the day one of my female colleagues asked me if I noticed that most of the guys were never prepared for the meetings? On that day I realised just how much harder I was working to feel like I was competent — when in reality I smashing it.
Stepping outside of my fear that they would discover I was a fraud, I started to notice just how much other people were struggling with their jobs. Oh sure, many of them hid it well, but when you start really watching other people you can see the tell-tale signs.
Giving me that understanding was such a wonderful gift — but my female colleagues did not stop there.
I’ve never given or accepted compliments very well — resolving that was the focus of activity two in My Year of TED. So what came next was difficult to deal with in many ways, but also wonderful. You see, there aren’t that many casual compliments paid in the military, it simply wasn’t part of the culture. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a large part of most of the workplace cultures I had experienced.
These two women were full of compliments, even for the things I felt hadn’t met my perfectionist standards. They allowed me to truly understand that there are things I can do, things I’m quite good at, that other people can’t do. More than that, they encouraged me to feel proud about it — and I’m not entirely sure that anyone in my life prior to that ever encouraged me to feel a sense of pride about anything.
And of course, from that pride came an increased confidence in my abilities. And from the increased confidence came a willingness to tackle some of the more difficult aspects of my job — and stand my ground more.
These women were a great counterpoint to each other — one was far more willing to rock the boat; the other stood her ground when it was required, but picked only the most relevant fights. Watching the two of them tackle their issues, listening to them openly discuss how they felt about the confrontations and when/why they would take a stand, was important.
It gave me a greater sense that I have a voice and I can take a stand — that the world will not come crumbling down if I stand up for things. Now I shouldn’t make it sound like I was a shrinking violet; over the previous five years I’d started speaking up more about certain topics. But a situation often had to get unbearable before I would speak up.
Importantly, I could discuss the issues I felt I needed to address with them and not feel judged. They would help me clarify my thinking and approach to the topic. More importantly, I trusted their advice and always knew they had my back.
The wonderful thing was, they weren’t the only women in that organisation who demonstrated courage and support — who modelled the brave woman I wanted to be in the workplace; and in my life. And there were others in my next workplace, and the network around that workplace.
I’ve had supportive male colleagues and bosses in my life, but none of them helped me truly grow. Learning to see myself, and the people around me, in the way these women did, is a gift I will never forget. It’s also a gift I try to pass on to other women — because I don’t think there is enough of that in the world.
We are raised in a society where we learn at a young age to compare ourselves to other women — to constantly compete. But we become stronger and more self-assured of our abilities and greatness when we support each other instead.
Who can you support today? Which females around you need to see themselves through your eyes? Give them the gift of courage and confidence, it will cost you nothing.
Originally published at medium.com