This is probably the hardest post I have attempted to write. This in the final form is the sixth iteration. But a series of things convinced me to write it. First, because a former colleague and company founder, asked me (and others) how to get more women in engineering. He asked the question. I answered, and he countered with this:
“Many girls are better than boys at math even in Sweden, attending mixed gender schools. But engineering is not their first pick when the apply for university. Is it that they lack role models? Is it because of the gender biased culture that is still predominant in the Swedish society, despite women being “more equal” in Sweden? Or is it because of the cultural values that parents transfer to their daughters and sons “unconsciously”?”
Second, I am reading Adam Grant’s Think Again and the section on Imposter Syndrome (defined as having competence but not confidence) hit me deep inside.
And third, over the past years, I have coached, mentored, or discussed with too many qualified women (in engineering or other highly qualified fields) who struggle with similar feelings to my own. Because I know I am not an outlier on this, and because the question is asked, I think I need to say go deeper into this, to help those men (our allies) who are sincerely curious to understand two key things we women struggle with.
Here are two of the key factors:
Imposter syndrome can be experienced across all genders, and one would argue most certainly all of us have felt it at one time or another, but it is stronger among women and other minorities. Grant even argues that a certain amount of it, or rather achieving confident humility (believing in yourself while questioning your tools), is the ideal.
For me personally, it means that when I make a decision, even one that I make with confidence and competence (from years of experience and training), I question it. I go back and forth over it, analyse it from at least several directions, and usually come to the same conclusion. But I still worry it, and question it.
It might be a question with huge consequence, affecting million dollars in company expenditures or, worst case, people’s lives or jobs. Those type of questions usually keep me up at night, as the consequences are so great. But strangely enough, even ridiculous things like should I go to Costco today or tomorrow, which is more efficient, can have me second-guessing myself.
I seldom see myself as good enough, even when a rational, analytical mind could safely conclude sufficient qualifications. There is interesting research on this as it applies to applying for jobs and promotions, from the HP study referenced in Lean-In – women apply at 100% qualified, men at 60% – which cites confidence as a reason and encourages women to step-up and lean-in, while other studies show differences in % qualified may be more out of following rules, fear of failure, and wanting to avoid wasting someone’s time.
At any rate, I (and many of my fellow women) feel it a good deal of the time, on our own, without any interactions or the environment around us. Then the unfortunate reality is in too many places still, our presence and value is questioned, consciously or unconsciously.
However, when we see more people like us (whether it is physical gender similarities) or behaving more like us (indirect communication, more consensual style of leadership and decision making), the feeling is less strong.
I was lucky to some extent in dealing with this, because I have always been a bit of an outsider anyway. I was a kind of strange, nerdy kid, usually with my head buried in a book. I almost never felt I fit in, at school, extended family, summer camp, etc. This created two things: a burning desire to prove my worth and a sense that it didn’t really matter if I fit in a new place, because I didn’t really fit in before anyway. Choosing engineering, where we are still less than 10% (2017 numbers of women intending to major in STEM – from Society of Women Engineers), is a hard obstacle for someone who has fit in and wants to be with others who are similar. I think this heightens the imposter syndrome affects, and the reasons not to want to put oneself in such careers and jobs.
“Duktig Flicka” (“Perfect Woman” / “Have or Do It All”)
I didn’t grow up or receive my education in Sweden. But I have a daughter who was in school there until age 11. I also have talked to enough Swedish educated and raised women to see some common trends with my own to say clearly that the voice in my head striving for perfection in all things in me is also in quite a few Swedish women, and even my own daughter.
In fact, the Swedish language even has an expression for it: “duktig flicka”. With only anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that most of the burnout in Sweden of women is in good part due to this, or rather a pressure to meet an impossible ideal. Just ask a Swedish woman about “duktig flicka” and one is usually met with a laugh, an agreement of the pressure to be it, and the conscious rational knowledge that one should not feel the pressure (and then feeling bad because we aren’t able to perfectly abandon a lifetime of conditioning).
“Duktig flicka” manifests itself in all kinds of ways:
– in 11 year olds first introduced to a grading system feeling tremendous pressure to achieve perfection (98% isn’t enough, there are 2% lacking)
– in young women in STEM who achieve high grades at university but struggle with a work reality that can’t afford (either from time or money) perfection
– in working mothers and/or partners, who although they are “equal” in all respects, still carry the mental burden for their household and families(for more on what this means, read here for an eloquent cartoon from a French cartoonist)
– in women leaders (technical or managerial) who are frustrated with themselves because they are not able to be solve every problem (personnel and technical), even while all stakeholders are content (or even thrilled) with the outcome
Basically it means that in all aspects of life, in all the things we do, we should be perfect.
We compare ourselves constantly to others. Even though we know not too (another thing to feel badly we can’t do perfectly). Social media intensifies it, but even if you can rationally understand that people only show their best sides there, not their whole messy self and lives, it doesn’t help the feeling of guilt when you just ordered 10 pizzas from the pizzeria and slapped a number candle on your kid’s bakery birthday cake then hear about the classmate whose mother organised a kid’s dream with the queen’s tea party, with all kinds of delicate (home-baked, of course) delicacies, Pinterest worthy decorations and costumes (hand-made, and for all the kids, of course), and did all of their make-up (even if you consider it questionable for 11 year olds, you still feel bad because you know you have neither the patience nor the skill to do it).
I find myself lacking as a “duktig flicka” pretty much every day. Without even leaving the house. Ask most women. Most of them would probably easier give you a list of their failings as a wife, mother, etc. then admit something they were proud of. I can tell you that today at least, I didn’t manage to get my daughter to eat breakfast, I still feel bad about the Costco frozen lasagna I served last night because it wasn’t organic meat and there were some of those awful chemicals in it, I sat in my SUV for 5 minutes with the engine idling while waiting for my daughter’s bus because the bugs, heat, and humidity were too much to take (I still see Greta Thunberg pointing a blaming finger at me for the impact on climate), I… the list could keep going, and I haven’t even started on the list of “working” tasks that I should have done (better or at all).
Talking to my peers from a highly ranked US university, working or non-working, we all share these concerns. It’s no wonder most of are diagnosed with high-functioning anxiety syndrome and are on medication to keep from harming ourselves. Women in Sweden, from older than me to twenty years younger feel it. Women across Europe, Asia, and North America feel a lot of society pressure to be better (and don’t even get me started on the fashion and beauty industry, its advertising, and what it does to women).
Then it comes to the work itself. Engineering by nature is an uncertain discipline. No matter how much process you have (and too much process is a bad thing, if you don’t believe me, read Bob Lutz’ Car Guys Vs. Bean Counters), there is not a set script to what to do, or even a good measure of when the system or product is good enough. Most of the times, we take an idea or concept, and then try to figure out how to solve it. We have time and money pressures, and usually a frustrated customer somewhere because we are already too slow, too expensive, and not experts enough (because how can you be an expert when you are doing something that has never been done before?).
That is awfully hard to do perfectly.
It also requires a certain amount of failure. We understand rationally that failure in Science and Engineering is good. It means that we have learned something and need to find another way.
For a “duktig flicka”, failure is hard to take. Letting someone down (a customer, a boss, a colleague) is even worse. Making a mistake is a hard thing to stomach. It’s even harder when you have already beaten yourself up in your head ten different ways, and someone points out that if he would have done it, it wouldn’t have gone wrong.
Even when our boss, our company, our customers are happy with our performance, we often aren’t happy with ourselves because the standard we hold for ourselves is a far higher bar than anyone could achieve. This is in part driven by systemic reasons, such as we often need to prove competence and experience to be hired, while men are hired on potential, but I think mainly because of “duktig flicka”. We are also paid at least 10% less in general for our work (SWE Study).
All these things are hard to deal with, and especially hard when you feel alone. Especially when you likely are the only person who looks like you. It is far worse when your colleagues are not active allies for gender equality, understand their own biases and continually question them, and your organization has systemic gender (and race and culture…) bias in raises, promotions, and evaluation systems. (Read both the McKinsey study linked earlier and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and How to Fix It)).
It’s no wonder we struggle with role models. Again referencing the SWE Study, in 2007, 3,7% of freshmen women (versus 18,1% men) intend to major in engineering. Of those, 68% graduate. Then, twenty years later, only 30% are still working twenty years later. So if 100 women start college intending to study engineering, 68 graduate, and 20 are still working in engineering twenty years later. And if you wonder why I keep talking about the organization, 30% of the women leaving engineering cite organizational climate as the reason for leaving. The reason I push this so hard is that I strongly believe that most organisations don’t want to push women out. But until they get into our realities and actively work to address bias (from the top to the bottom), all the best intentions go nowhere.
What To Do
I think the first step is to recognise change is needed. At least Babak has asked the question and wants to be part of the change. I know more men in my network do.
Next is education. As I said, this is a deep systemic problem that has a lot of different cultural adaptations and attitudes to introduce variation. It is a global problem, but there are many root causes and many potential solutions. I have referred to several good books and studies that are a wonderful starting point for education. The more our allies are educating themselves, the better they can help us.
Next is working with our own biases. If you want to address this on your own, Harvard has an amazing free resource with many implicit bias tests. I was surprised with my own biases. I had expected a fairly strong bias with the African American male and violence, as a result of my American upbringing. However, that one was not, likely because I acknowledged it years ago and have been actively working to overcome it. However to my surprise, I had a gender bias! Me, a women with passion for reducing gender bias, who bristles when it is applied to me. But once I knew it, I could study more about it. I could see why I had it, and also I could actively work to overcome it, in the same way I had worked with overcoming the African American male violence. I am working on a webinar on implicit bias that I hope to introduce later this year.
Then, I would encourage outreach and conversation. Another important thing that I learned in my train-the-trainer for Inclusive Leadership was that we shouldn’t expect our minorities at work to be our educators. If we really care about inclusive companies, we will let our minorities focus on their jobs (the things that are measured and lead to advancement, and that they are hired to do) rather than educating us. But we have friends, partners, and there are tremendous resources for learning about gender, race, etc challenges. I am proud to know that my husband, after being my shoulder to cry on and also my greatest fan, is a lot more inclusive leader because of me and my experiences. The more we can see inside the worlds of people we care for, we can be allies and make changes for our colleagues, peers, and subordinates. Reach out to me, if you have worked with me, if you don’t know anyone else. I would be happy to speak to you about my own experience for free, and provide coaching, consulting or training as a paid service.
Lastly, I would challenge women to constantly challenge “duktig flicka”. Don’t be afraid to share your messy, vulnerable, imperfect but completely competent and worthy self. I’ll blog soon on that and daring greatly. The more we can be part of breaking down the illusion of perfection, the more women who will acknowledge the impossible ideal that we are held to and be emboldened to go into areas like engineering and leadership:
“The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends (her)self in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that (her) place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt, Paris FRANCE 1910-04-23 (if you feel empowered by the quote, I encourage you to read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly).
The more active the engagement of our allies, the faster we will fix this. While women supporting women (as role models, mentors, peers, colleagues, bosses, etc) make a difference, men as allies speed the process a lot until we reach equality. I know there are a lot of you other there, as I have had the good fortune to work with you – let’s work together to make the world more inclusive!