Last year, as a fledgling entrepreneur, I took part in an accelerator program aimed at start-ups to help grow and scale their business. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the course but what I didn’t expect was to experience the gender equality issue in such a tangible way.
Already feeling like an imposter, I entered the room and quietly took a space near the middle and away from the growing number of men in suits who were appearing by the second.
When the group got started, I took a moment to realise that women were outnumbered in this group three to one. The majority of the women had also banded together around two tables near the back of the room. Feeling out of place in this male-dominated environment, I joined this band of women, feeling less of a target when amongst ‘my own’.
Passive vs Assertive
The men in the group were confident, outspoken and assertive. They were the first to participate in activities, to answer questions (often shouting out the answers before the facilitator could ask one of the women who had raised their hand). They seemed to have no hesitation in sharing their accomplishments.
This was not the case for most of the women in the group. They avoided eye contact when a question was asked and when asked to stand up and share about their business, they got flustered, became nervous and self-deprecating. I was shocked to hear several apologising for feeling like they shouldn’t be in the group, that they were out of their depth.
I also noticed throughout the course of the program that the women were more likely to ask for help, even when they knew the answers to the questions. They didn’t believe in their own abilities to complete tasks and they consistently underestimated their own intelligence.
All around me were talented and successful business owners. One woman ran a very successful hospitality business. One had developed a lift-changing prototype for children with disabilities. One had been making and selling hand-crafted confectionery throughout Ireland. And yet almost every one of them said they felt like imposters.
During the program, the facilitator often spent more time with the women, asking if they needed help or guidance. At first, I was annoyed by this, thinking he felt the women were somehow less capable. But as the program progressed I realised that this was happening because we were allowing ourselves to seem to need assistance by playing down our skills and intelligence. Even with the combined success of the women in the group, we constantly portrayed ourselves as less successful than we actually were. Could it be that we were unwittingly contributing to the gender equality gap?
These patterns of self-deprecation, modesty, and reservation are replicated throughout women’s lives. In school, boys participate more in class and yet girls consistently score higher in tests. Men have higher career aspirations despite women graduating at higher rates and with better results.
Women & Modesty
Women are taught from a very young age to be modest and keep quiet about their achievements. We are taught to not be “bossy” while our male counterparts are to be “assertive”. We sacrifice intelligence for the sake of social appearance and as a result, we are at a disadvantage when it comes to pursuing a career.
These patterns of teaching girls to be modest, quiet and unassuming must end. Allowing women to have this idea that they are not smart enough, skilled enough or accomplished enough must end. We need to instill confidence and self-assurance in our women and their abilities if we want to close the gender pay gap and have true equality in the workplace and in life.
This is one of the reasons I love working with WOMEN’STEC so much. While we provide skills and improve employability for our women, we also put confidence-building and personal development at the core of everything we do. We recognise that skills and employability are not enough. We need to help our women realise their value and have confidence in themselves to take their lives and do something wonderful with them. It is only by raising our women up that we can achieve true equality for all.