This morning, I managed to be late for a television hit I was doing from my own living room. I fell prey to the compulsion women often feel to keep working – answer one more email, take one more call, as if all the validation we seek in life will be ours if we complete that one final task. No matter how hard we work, we feel compelled to do more. It’s a compulsion no woman should ever buy into, but I understand why so many of us do. It mirrors our professional life experience - no matter what we do, we feel it’s never enough.
I have always had great male mentors and colleagues who were very supportive of me and other women. They certainly did not seek to stand in the way of women’s advancement. Still, I and millions of other women have struggled to rise as fast as our male counterparts. One hundred years after women won the right to vote, we continue to live in a world where women are consistently undervalued and the vast majority of positions of power are still held by held by men.
The lack of evident sexism at play can have a perverse impact on our self-esteem. “No one is deliberately trying to hold me back,” women seem to intuit, “therefore, I must be doing something wrong.” We are not. We have simply gone as far as we can playing by the old rules of what women need to do to succeed in a man’s world.
Despite all we have done to fit in, we are still operating under power systems that were built long ago by men, for men, to accommodate them and to value their efforts over the efforts of women. It is time to declare our independence from these systems, reject the corrosive lessons we have internalized that hold women back, and forge a new path of our own making. Here are three places to start:
1) Refuse to believe that women are in competition for a limited amount of success.
We have to fully reject the notion that the professional advancement of women is a zero-sum game, or we will make it true because, like most false beliefs, it is self-perpetuating. Believing only a few women can thrive is buying into the notion that women are merely visitors in a man’s world. The reality is that our individual success is linked to the success of other women and real sustained progress for each of us is dependent upon other women also being valued and succeeding. Support other women. They are not your competitors; they are your support system.
2) Do not settle for less than you are worth.
Women make the world run, but men still run the world and consistently earn more money than women while doing it. Like a lot of women, I have struggled to effectively advocate for myself and be paid what I am worth. It’s no wonder why. Every day women are sent messages from the music we hear on the radio, to the sports we watch on television, to the men we elect as leaders, that we are not as interesting or as valuable as men. That belief is another vestige of a man’s world we have to leave behind. Women must insist on being paid what we are worth. If we do not, we will continue to devalue the work of all women.
3) Hold on to what makes you better, let go of what holds you back.
I have often worked harder than my male colleagues and adapted my own behavior to try and fit into their world. As a result, I have become very astute and resourceful. I have developed high standards for myself and I am not going to lower them now. Men are just going to have to try and keep up. What I have learned to let go of is the doubt I used to hold in my head that made me question my worth and told me that no matter how hard I worked it was never enough.
If I am now so free of these qualms, why did I still fall prey to the compulsion to answer that last email and take that phone call this morning? It was work I wanted to do. The email was from a woman who loved “She Proclaims” and wrote to tell me that she was starting a mother-daughter book club so moms and kids could read it together. The call was from a woman reporter scrambling to make a deadline for a story about presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate. I wanted to help her. The difference is I am no longer chasing some ghost that tells me if I stay on the treadmill, the man’s world will finally value me as it should. These are my choices that I am making about what I put my effort into, and they reflect the simple belief I hold at my core that women — in all we do and say — are as valuable as men.
Jennifer Palmieri is a longtime political adviser who served as President Obama’s White House communications chief and a top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. She is author of the new book “She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World” and the best-selling book “Dear Madam President.”