I will always remain grateful for the adversity previous generations of women endured to make sure that my life was not predetermined from birth to be solely at home. Yet, I, like many millennial women, are beginning to wonder if we really are better off than our mothers. While millennial men generally may seem more “progressive” about women holding roles traditionally held by men, it is not actively reflected in the data. As of now, trying to do everything at work in a man’s world the way a man would do it is not working.
For instance, many (mostly men) in my career implicitly or explicitly have told me that women are better suited for communications, caregiving, or the softer skills for marketing and client interface. One boss indirectly hinted at this in my interview for my first real job. I clearly took the job, regardless of his bias, hoping to delve into more technical research work. After a few months of doing”coordination” tasks, I asked for more technical work related to data analysis. Each time, someone expressed resistance by telling me I did not have the proper skills. As I kept seeking mentorship and guidance to gain these skills, I found myself empty-handed.
“Do these (menial) tasks first, and then you can do work on more technical tasks. Be a team player,” yet another man or woman supporting this structure would tell me.
However, that was never the case. Women had to do these tasks. When my male colleagues were asked to do them, I or other women eventually had to take over because of their resistance. Whether those women were senior or junior, it felt like the only value women had in men’s eyes was office housekeeping. A few years into a couple of jobs where I saw the same trends, I knew something was very wrong. This backhanded compliment of what women “were good at” was a way of saying that we cannot do anything else.
This is the case, despite our academic performance and emotional intelligence saying otherwise. I kept asking myself if I was being too sensitive for reflecting upon being a woman in the workplace. Was I working hard enough? Could I never gain the skills needed because I was not good enough? Did I need to accept that I could not stomach the pressure?
The self-doubt was poisoning my mind. I finally understood what my mother was unknowingly preparing me for all these years – a man’s world.
No matter what I did this is how it would remain. Even when women jump through every hoop to try to enter a leadership position, a supervisor may tell them in one way or another that they do not deserve it or that they do not have the right qualities. Now imagine all of these generally discouraging trends for millennial women in the workplace with an extra layer of race. Women of color experience all of what I have discussed on top of the challenges that come with preconceptions and stereotypes about their race.
To verify if I was the only one feeling this, I obtained an unfiltered opinion from a successful woman of color. I spoke to my friend and mentor, an ambitious Black scientist, about her experiences. She recounted many of her own experiences of professional bullying in major scientific institutions. Sadly, many Black women do not get a Hollywood movie ending like “Hidden Figures”. She became so disillusioned that she had to reevaluate her trajectory. She eventually co-founded a food truck and worked as an independent consultant in global health and scientific programming. While she struggled financially for almost a year before any of this came to fruition, she feels no regret.
My friend’s frustrations were not so different from those of other women of color in the workplace. This is evidenced by the rise of women-owned businesses, “momtrepreneurs,” and a trend towards women making their own opportunities. More women of color are also joining this trend and trying new approaches. At this point I realized: why should all women keep waiting for approval in a system that still favors men?
While I admire those women who are close to breaking the glass ceiling in the traditional work world, it cannot be the sole option for career success for every woman. My friend’s boldness to take her own path inspired me to start paving my own. I recently concluded that the traditional workplace was not the option for me. To own that remains difficult, but working on my own ideas has helped me tackle the toxic self-doubt I developed over the years. I have created more than I ever did as a beggar in the traditional work world.
Maybe our mothers were not hoping for our generation of women to climb the traditional career ladder. They wanted us to get rid of the ladder and redefine what it means to be at the “top.”