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What Got Us Here. Will It Get Us There?

Despite the progress toward equality and empowerment, many women feel stuck, and unable to make the impact they want to make. Here’s why, and what we can do about it.

It’s 2020. As women, we’ve come a long way in our collective journey, albeit to varying degrees in different parts of the world. Women drive the global economy, controlling about twenty trillion dollars of annual consumer spending. And in the West, they can be found at the highest rungs of many institutions.

And yet, our progress seems fragile at best, given that we’re still fighting for many of the same rights for equality and respect that began the women’s suffrage movement, and the waves of feminist movements that followed. Conscious biases against women have morphed into subconscious biases that are far more difficult to identify or challenge.

As a result, the progress in women’s advancement has slowed down. There has been almost no change in women’s representation at the most senior levels in organizations, despite the time and effort invested women’s leadership over the past decade. Increasingly, we’re seeing smart and talented women stuck in managerial roles, or opting out of the workplace just when they’re ready to rise to more senior positions.  

To help women make the impact they long to make, in a world that needs their voice and presence more than ever, I believe we need to widen the lens through which we understand their present stuck-ness. In my research on women’s flourishing, I’ve found that our collective and individual journeys are intertwined in uncannily similar ways.

As a womanhood, our fight for autonomy has been built on an undeniable fact of our collective history; a history so old that many of us may be disconnected with it. And yet, the thousands of years spent as the “lesser sex” have left an indelible mark on our collective psyche. Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are embedded deep in our bones.

Individually, many women spend a lifetime in a similar gap between explicit and implicit beliefs. A sensitive and agreeable nature, combined with less than ideal early experiences, lead to subconscious beliefs that can stay hidden as long as we’re successful or receive praise and approval from others. The late Professor Michael Kernis at the University of Georgia coined a term for this gap: Fragile Self-Esteem.

When success and approval are slowly replaced with failure or criticism, subconscious beliefs begin to surface. This is common for women in mid-adulthood, who face not only unique challenges as they rise in seniority, but also expanded responsibilities outside of work that stretch them thin. Some begin to lose the hope and confidence they once had. Others strive harder to achieve success and gain approval, at the expense of their health and happiness.

But for many, it comes as a moment of awakening. Whose life am I living? What am I here to do? The truth in author and activist Parker Palmer’s quote from his book Let Your Life Speak, dawns on them: “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

This is the where we are as women. We’ve arrived the gates of mid-adulthood, strangers to ourselves. And we’re experiencing a collective longing to embrace the gifts and possibilities that lie within us, so we can step beyond our shadows, and give our best back to the world.

I want to share two ways of doing so from a framework of optimal confidence that I’ve developed and tested as part of my post-graduate psychological research. They’re both based in stories, because it’s through stories that we make sense of our place in the world. And stories that are embedded in our psyche, individual or collective, are one-sided by nature, because the brain had yet to develop the capacity for rational thought.

Collective Stories

Our libraries are stocked with books of courageous men who changed the course of civilization. Its these books that we study in our schools and discuss in our universities. It’s these books that influence our decisions about who can be a leader, and what are the qualities that will help them do so.

What if we expanded our stories to not only include women, but to also celebrate the lives that exhibit a different kind of courage? The kind of courage that’s underpinned by feminine traits of patience, compassion, quiet resistance. Like the volunteers who help save lives, make them a little better, or simply sit with the pain of acceptance. Or the millions of mothers who do their best to provide a stable home for their children in the midst of war.

Besides celebrating, we also need to reward these virtues in our schools and institutions, as much as we reward performance and profits. It’s the only way we change the culture of hustle and greed that’s driving us to our demise.

Individual Stories

Research on character traits shows that we all have twenty-four strengths in our toolbox, with a handful that come most naturally to us. These “signature strengths” are part of our personal brand, who we are as our most authentic selves. The others are strengths we can “pivot” to when the situation calls for it.

As a women’s leadership coach, I’ve found that psychometric tests for strengths rarely work for women. Clients usually don’t like to see “gratitude” or “empathy” as their top strengths, and want strategies to become more courageous or less emotional. What does work though, is helping them reflect on stories from their past. Stories of when they felt alive point to their signature strengths. Stories of times when they rose to their challenges highlight the lesser used strengths they can pivot to when needed.

A client who was struggling to find the courage to advocate for herself, remembered how she would stand up to her alcoholic mother when her younger brother’s safety was at stake. This memory changed her perception of herself from “meek” to “brave”, and helped her show up with greater conviction in her negotiation.

Individual and collective stories highlight the truth in us. The truth that beloved poet Maya Angelou captured so beautifully in her poem A Brave and Startling Truth:

“…we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”.

It’s our responsibility to surrender to this truth because we have important work to do. Albert Einstein is quoted to have said that we cannot solve problems from the same level of consciousness that created them. The problems we face are a result of the 4th order of consciousness, as described by Harvard professor Robert Kegan in his work of adult development. And most of us are stuck here.

To rise to the 5th order where we’re able to hold onto multiple perspectives at the same, an essential quality in today’s world, we need to come back home to ourselves. To our “place in the family of things” as Mary Oliver writes in her poem Wild Geese.

It’s from there that we’ll each grow into the woman we’re born to be.

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