I came to Duke University with a blank page and an unwritten story, feeling limitless in my pursuits and eager to embrace opportunities that came my way. One of these opportunities—a student job on campus—particularly interested me. It required the dedication and professionalism that I had mastered as a pre-professional dancer throughout high school, and I knew I could handle the time commitment it required. During the application process, however, I heard words—not once, not twice, but three times—that no bright-eyed freshman should have to hear: “You’re less likely to be hired because you’re a woman.”
But not me, I initially thought. My experience, my intellect, and my ability to command an interview room would surely be of utmost importance when considering my application. However, after being told that I “killed the interview” and “impressed everyone,” it turned out that the hirers were asked to “specifically look for guys.” I didn’t get the job, and all I could think was that I hadn’t done enough.
While I wish I could say that this experience didn’t affect me and that I navigated my way through Duke without giving it another thought, I’d be lying. In reality, what happened to me negatively colored my self-perception. While you would think I should have been disappointed in the system and those who lead it, I was mostly disappointed with myself. Will I ever be taken seriously? Should I even try?
I thought along these lines for several months, letting this experience dictate my thoughts and actions. Someone’s perceptions of my abilities due to my gender started to affect everything I did. I began to think in patterns of negative self-fulfilling prophecies, in which I expected that I would fail and didn’t see the point in trying. When I earned difficult opportunities, I often told myself that I didn’t deserve them. When I spoke to professionals in the industry I was interested in (who were mostly men), I shrunk in my stance and wouldn’t speak up. Why would they want to talk to me? I no longer expected greatness from myself, and there didn’t seem to be a need to.
Over the years, however, my mindset has changed. I’ve come across incredibly strong women who have modeled for me how to handle these situations. Undoubtedly, I still face a number of microaggressions, but I don’t let them affect me the way they used to. I don’t let them dictate my story. To all women who have faced something similar—whether it’s being mansplained, excluded from meetings, or completely ignored when expressing an idea—here’s what I’ve learned along the way:
Control Your Controllables: My mindset really began to change when I interned with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream where I met Theresa Wenzel, the team’s President. Theresa would often tell me, “Control your controllables; it’s not about what happens to you, but how you respond.” These words still linger in my mind. I came to realize that what happened my freshman year was completely out of my control. The real problem was that I walked into an interview room with an automatic disadvantage. I couldn’t dictate the biases of the men who were interviewing me, and I couldn’t prevent them from stereotyping my abilities as a woman. I could have controlled, however, my resulting attitude. Always, I can choose to move forward with grit, determination, and resilience. I can choose to write my own story.
‘Qualified’ is Just a Matter of Time: As I previously mentioned, I do experience a dose of imposter syndrome every now and again. Am I really qualified for this opportunity? Do I truly deserve it? During my freshman year at Duke, that single experience taught me that societal perceptions (factors outside of my control) can be obstacles to my success. Since then, I find myself thinking that I’m a fraud in my own accomplishments. I expressed this concern to Sanyin Siang, a cherished mentor and the Executive Director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center On Leadership and Ethics. She responded by saying, “Qualified is just a matter of time.” She presented me with two choices: I can live in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud OR I can harness that fear and use it as motivation to excel. In the same light, I often hear women downplay their successes by saying, “I must have only gotten this job because I’m a woman.” To this, Sanyin would say: It doesn’t matter how you think you got the job, it matters that you now have the opportunity. So make it count. Write your story, and make it a good one.
It’s Not You, It’s the Context: One my greatest honors at Duke has been serving as the President of Duke Association For Business Oriented Women. Over and over again, I hear women in the organization say that they’ve felt ignored or overlooked when expressing their opinions in a room of predominantly men, and they ask what they can do to change themselves. We need to shift this conversation. Why do we focus so much on how to change ourselves as women rather than working to change the perceptions of others? Stigma-based perceptions should not dictate women’s stories and how we present ourselves. Don’t change the direction of your story because it doesn’t “belong” in a certain context.
Too often we hear that there are too few women in STEM, that women rarely make it to the C-Suite, and that there are too few women political leaders. Undoubtedly, it’s important to acknowledge the numerous barriers that women face to make it to these positions. However, it’s equally essential that we realize the ways that women let others dictate our own stories, preventing us from reaching great heights due to stereotypical beliefs. To all women reading this, it’s time we take charge of our own journeys. This is just a chapter of what I’ve learned while crafting my story, and I hope it helps you write your’s.