You hear it everywhere: Women are killing it these days. They’re doing better in school than their male counterparts and going on to fantastic careers. And yet… men still get promoted faster and paid more. So what gives?
While there are plenty of factors that contribute to women’s slowed or limited trajectory, there’s a growing body of evidence that one big reason we haven’t yet shattered the glass ceiling is something far more basic: a lack of confidence (as the recent Atlantic piece elucidates in great detail). Ruthless self-doubt does plague scores of women and keeps them stymied in a zillion ways (I know, because it happens to me). Still, gender comparison can only help us to a point.
I want to take men out of the picture for a moment because while they serve as a benchmark and point of comparison, the truth is, women play a huge role in other women’s self-doubt. Why?
Because most of the time, women are very busy comparing themselves to other women, not other men. A man gets something you wanted (the job, a raise, etc) and you can chalk it up to the gender thing. But when a woman beats you out, eyes narrow. That’s when you ask yourself, “What does she have that I don’t?”
My life has been populated almost entirely by women. I was raised in a family of three girls (even our dogs were female). My elementary school class was dominated by girls. I went to an all-girls private high school. In college, I performed in a dance troupe of all women, and went into a career in publishing where, I don’t need to tell you, ladies abound.
I credit where and who I am to the wonderful and supportive female relationships I’ve formed in my lifetime. But the lack of confidence I had for decades came down to how I believed I measured up to other women. At my first job, I lost a promotion to an outside hire — a tall, muscular blonde — and that betrayal by the women who had courted me for the role stung so bad I left work for the day.
Like any woman, I also desperately wanted to be accepted, liked, included and approved of by other women. I asked powerhouse corporate executive and coach Bethany Williams, author of “CEO of You,” if she thought women undermine each others’ confidence. She said the problem is how we see opportunity. “Far too many women believe that when it comes to getting a piece of the pie, there’s a limited number of slices available to us,” she says. “And this can cause women to cannibalize each other.”
I’ll admit I have thought this way — that not just another person, but another woman would be better in this job, this dress, this relationship. It’s hard not to blame a culture that pits women against each other, judges them by how old they are, how much they weigh, how pretty they are compared to the others in the room, but we have also internalized that fear of scarcity in every area of our lives.
For Williams, the answer has been to give the thing she never had as a young, widowed mother who put herself through college: A helping hand. “I decided I was going to help other women, propel them as much as I could,” she says. “And those people started helping me.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: “We see limited opportunity if we help others, but by not helping other people, you actually limit the opportunities.”
A survey by Catalyst bears this out, reporting that those who invest time in cultivating other talent also seem to benefit. While there’s not necessarily a causal relationship here, the implication is that developing talent helps make you more visible, and thus can bring greater recognition and reward.
No one ever gets anywhere on her own. Any successful person owes a big thank you to others who helped get her there. I know I do. I’ve since rounded out the gender ratio in my own life, and some of my greatest mentors and supporters are men. But as women, we really do owe it to ourselves and each other to empower and uplift. That fear that there won’t be enough left for you if you help someone else? That’s an illusion.
While we can point fingers at the culture for embedding this scarcity mentality in us, we have a choice to either reinforce it or overcome it altogether. Yes, you must go for what you want, no matter who else wants it, man or woman — because anything worth doing or having is going to be desirable to plenty of people — but until we can support each other in a real way, we risk being stingy and mean, doubtful of our abilities and afraid of others’.
My fear is that we’ll be so busy fighting over the scraps, we’ll miss out on the banquet that’s been in front of us the whole time.