Last week, Lean In started a social media campaign asking all women to answer the question “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
The idea was to recognize what stops women from taking on leadership roles in hopes that acknowledging these fears will empower us to fight them.
Many women admitted that if they weren’t afraid they would give themselves more credit for the work they do. One woman states, “I just got nominated for my second Emmy and I still can’t say that I am a writer.” Sheryl Sandberg attributes this to the lack of leadership skills girls are able to develop growing up and the very real ways this can impact their adult lives. She states, “Studies show that by the time they graduate from college more men than women see themselves as leaders.”
This lack of confidence can make it difficult for women to acknowledge and be proud of their accomplishments which can negatively impact their careers and even their own personal self-esteem. It also greatly contributes to many women’s lack of ability to accept compliments which is displayed perfectly in this Amy Schumer sketch where a group of girlfriends run into each other on the street and bombard each other with compliments followed by self-deprecating responses. One in particular states, after her friends congratulate her on her recent promotion, “I’m going to get fired in like 2 seconds, I’m legally retarded.” Girls aren’t taught to boast, they are taught to be encouraging and supportive of each other but constantly question their own abilities, success, and appearance.
The Everyday Sexism Project has more than 50,000 Twitter followers and serves as a catalogue of daily harassment women face across the world. Hollaback is a similar organization that works to fight specifically street harassment across the globe. Together they have played a major role in de-sensitizing us to the sexism we all face on a daily basis and making us stop and question things we never noticed before or at least never felt we had the option to speak out against. No matter how big or small, it’s the everyday things that serve as constant reminders that we still have such a long way to. It’s alarming that so many women listed it as something they would be willing to fight if they weren’t afraid, one in particular stated, “If I weren’t afraid I would tell the guy at the halal cart whistling at me to go screw himself.”
Sandberg states, “Starting at very young ages we encourage leadership and boys but not in girls. When a boy leads even if it’s on the kindergarten playground we applaud him, we cheer him on, and we certainly don’t criticize but when little girls lead their called bossy, over time children internalize these messages.” Many women listed their fear of asking questions, confronting their bosses, and negotiating a higher salary for themselves. While not having cheerleaders on the playground may not seem like a big deal to some being paid less than a male colleague in the same role, undoubtedly is to us all.
Many people listed their desire to pursue a completely different career path whether it be a fitness instructor, an entrepreneur, or a more creative outlet such as an artist or a writer. This had me questioning if the fear of pursuing your dreams, a lofty and perfectly scary notion, is a gendered one as I’m sure many men out there would be afraid of quitting their jobs to pursue a riskier career say, in music for example. While those fears are legitimate, I do think there are various factors at play that can make these career changes even riskier for women. Whether it’s the desire to enter a male-dominated field or the expectations to fulfill traditional gender roles or the lack of supportive work-family policies that would allow for an easy transition into a career of choice, the gendered division of labor and persistence of the glass ceiling can make this fear all the more complicated for women.
I was a super shy kid but I was also pretty smart. I can still remember sitting in the classroom when a teacher asked a question and knowing the right answer but almost never raising my hand. Sometimes when I would get called on I would even say I didn’t know the answer, when I knew that I did. Looking back on that and my pre-feminist self makes me feel very ashamed but knowing that there are plenty of girls out there who are still being made to feel that they aren’t entitled to speak, or to be right, makes me overwhelmingly sad. This stuck with me as I grew older. In meetings, I felt that my role was to take the minutes and bring the coffee. I didn’t immediately feel open to contributing my opinions, concerns, or even asking questions. Thankfully I worked for a team of incredibly inspiring and encouraging feminists that made me feel deeply valued and quickly shed me of this fear. I worry now for all of the other girls who will not be as lucky.
It’s no secret that women are harshly judged for the way we look, most often in regards to their weight. Whether it’s a tabloid bashing Kim Kardashian for the weight she has gained while pregnant, or the snide comments or reactions of a non-twig sized woman on the street, women are constantly reminded that they could always look better than they currently do. The pressure on us to be thin, fit, “bikini-body” ready is immense and even those of us who have built up a strong self-esteem armor over the years have a hard time being immune to these never-ending criticisms. While weight is perhaps the most common, things even as small as hair style, clothing styles, even manicures are all constantly criticized as well with women’s magazines bombarding us with pre-packaged ideas of what we should be doing and wearing.
A sad but common fear was the fear of traveling the world, or even your street at night, alone. The freedom of traveling alone is one of life’s greatest joys and adventures that all genders should be entitled to. While no one can guarantee your personal safety in every corner for the world, whether it’s through SVU episodes, airplane ride screenings of the movie Taken, or tuning into the daily news, women are constantly reminded of the potentially dangerous situations we are putting ourselves in simply by being alone in public.
Apart from being judged on our appearance, we are also pretty harshly judged on our actions whether it be our career choices, our sexual activity, our relationships, or our desire or ability to be mothers. Sadly, in many cases women are the judged and the ones doing the judging. As a recent article in NY mag states, “When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it. It means there’s less for us.” While it offers “shine theory,” a theory that suggests we befriend women who intimidate us in order to achieve true confidence, as a solution to this fierce female competitiveness, it demonstrates how far we have to go in applying this theory in reality.
As one of the youngest girls in the Lean In video states, “I was always told that being sweet was one of my greatest assets and being nice and polite … how do you figure out the best way to realize that it doesn’t matter if everybody likes you?” And at such a young age she’s able to perfectly pinpoint one of the greatest revelations of my mid-20s. Girls are taught to be subdued people-pleasers not aggressive or opinionated, and while every girl fails in a different place on this scale one of the most liberating notions of adulthood is knowing that sometimes it’s okay and even necessary to be pissed and to piss people off.
The underlying fear of every fear listed above is our deep-seeded fear of failure. Again, it’s questionable whether the fear of failure is a gender-less one but in a system that in a lot of ways has set women up to fail, it’s undeniable that it has a gendered effect. Apart from a lack of confidence and leadership skills, growing up girls are discouraged from pursuing math and science at school, we are conditioned into lower paid fields of work, control over our own reproductive choices is constantly threatened, and we’re expected to take on child-bearing and house-keeping responsibilities on top of a full-time job and excel at both with ease. In the face of “having it all” we are constantly reminded of how impossible it is to achieve. Life is hard when you are expected to take full responsibilities of your pitfalls every step of the way, even for those that aren’t your fault.
While this list provides a pretty interesting representation of what women today are afraid of, it leaves me eager to know how men would respond to the same question. And of course, eager to know what all of you out there would say, as Sandberg asks, “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”