There’s one thing that holds us women back from becoming our most unstoppable, empowered selves. It’s a fear that’s deep-rooted in almost every woman, from the most accomplished female CEOs to the equally successful stay-at-home moms. It’s the looming, gut-wrenching fear of failure that has been stifling the potential of women worldwide.
But to understand the root of this fear and the roadblocks to feeling empowered, we need to explore what being ’empowered’ actually means. What’s so beautiful about this word is that every woman has a different definition of what it feels like to be empowered. According to many, living an empowered life is not necessarily about aspiring for perfection, but about being confident with failure and living authentically. Confidence and empowerment go hand-in-hand, and the good news is that confidence can be learned.
Confidence and empowerment go hand-in-hand, and the good news is that confidence can be learned.
Nevertheless, so many women struggle with confidence and self-esteem. This is evident in a number of ways – from how fast we want to bounce back in shape after giving birth, to our career choices. We tend to gravitate towards careers that we know we’ll be perfect in. And it’s no surprise because women have been socialized to aspire for perfection, not bravery.
Globally, societal and cultural programming teach girls from a young age to avoid risk-taking, as compared to men. This disparity originates from factors ranging from upbringing to biology. We are taught to be obedient, to wait for our turn, to follow the rules, to look ‘pretty’, and to be a ‘good girl’ in order to be likable. Ironically, those same qualities that little girls are rewarded for in school are the ones that hold us back in our careers later.
Study shows that men will apply for a job if they fulfil 60% of the required qualifications listed for it, but women will only apply if they meet 100% of them.
Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to compete, play rough, speak out, be resilient and are therefore habituated to taking more risks as they grow older. We basically raise boys to be bold, and girls to be obedient. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist and researcher, observed this in her study of fifth graders when they were asked to do a challenging assignment.
She found that although there was no advantage of one gender over the other in academics or skills, girls were more likely than boys to give up trying. They’d much rather not try than risk failing. These findings shed light on the differences in how girls and boys approach challenges. This continues even through adulthood, as a Hewlett-Packard report highlighted that men will apply for a job if they fulfil 60% of the required qualifications listed for it, but women will only apply if they meet 100% of them.
We as women don’t have a ‘performance’ deficit, we have a ‘confidence’ deficit.
All these studies mean one thing – we as women don’t have a ‘performance’ deficit, we have a ‘confidence’ deficit. We’re so afraid of imperfection and failure that we only do things we’re sure to do well. We hold high perfectionism standards for ourselves and beat ourselves up when we don’t meet them. We constantly contemplate how we’re doing as mothers, wives, friends, businesswomen and students. We obsess over our performance in the workplace, in our homes and even in a Pilates class.
So, how can we bridge this confidence gap to be the most self-assured, authentic and truest versions of ourselves? How can we unlock our potential and cultivate a sense of empowerment in our everyday lives? Here are some practical ways that experts suggest to feel more empowered.
Surround yourself with a supportive network of women that uplifts and builds each other up. In the age of social media, where it seems like we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, it’s important to change the stereotype that women don’t support other women. Affirm other women for qualities like being brave, intelligent and creative, and not just their looks. Don’t underestimate the affect your words of encouragement can have on the trajectory of another woman. When women come together, we create a powerful force that can propel us all forward.
Shed the layers of conditioning that have held you back all these years and get rid of the desire to fit in. When we live authentically, we create a ripple effect that extends to all the women around us and inspires them to do the same. We become magnetic.
Female role models affect how young girls and women view their own potential. With influential women still being underrepresented in mainstream media, it would take a lot of real-life examples of female role models to change entrenched attitudes. Learn about influential women in different spheres; female politicians, historical figures, athletes, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs. Talk about them with your daughters, friends and on social media, and you might inspire a young woman to take a leap of faith in herself that she never would otherwise.
Studies on self-perception conducted by Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance, while women repeatedly underestimate both. “It’s one of the most consistent findings you can have,” she said. While men are more likely to credit their efforts and skills to their achievements, women tend to credit circumstances and luck to their successes.
So, starting today, whether it’s breaking your own plank record at the gym or speaking up at a meeting at work you would normally shy away from, start celebrating your smallest wins. Give yourself permission to bask in the glory of your success and remember that you didn’t get where you are in life by chance, you earned it.
Not surprisingly, women also tend to attribute failures to their self-worth and lack of ability, while men are more likely to blame external circumstances. We take failing more personally and believe that there’s something innately wrong with us when we fail. We have all been there, when your child is misbehaving, and you immediately think of it as a reflection of your bad parenting and start to question your capability as a mother. Recognize when your thoughts take that turn, tune out your self-limiting beliefs, and be kinder to yourself.
A growing awareness of how women can feel more empowered has the potential to shift the way we show up in our lives. So, let’s unleash our power and start showing up unapologetically, fearlessly and imperfectly. Loud and proud.
Dr Alya Al Midfa is a specialist psychiatrist based in Abu Dhabi and a new mom to a beautiful baby girl. Currently, she’s headed to King’s College London to specialize in Clinical Neuropsychiatry. She’s passionate about raising mental health awareness and has been a speaker at a number of events for this cause. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, going on road trips, and listening to podcasts.