As a female who has first studied, then worked within a male dominated field for the past 2+ decades, I have lost count of the number of times that I have had to struggle just that little (sometimes not so little) bit more than my male colleagues – for no other reason that my sex. There has often been the assumption that I have not the intellect to comprehend key aspects of my field and that my opinion or ideas are always wrong. Some who seem to need to disagree with me on principle, even if something I am saying is something they would normally 100% agree with. There have been some that have tried to physically intimidate me to get their way – I say try because I didn’t back down. I’ve been told that I am aggressive when I am showing even less assertiveness than my male colleagues. And I have also had male staff request to move to another team when I was promoted above them and they didn’t want to report to a younger female. Others would just bully me to try to get their way, often turning around and reporting me for bullying when I didn’t fold.
And I know I’m not alone in my experience of the above. All of this, plus the higher expectations that we women leaders often have of ourselves, makes for an exhausting time. We tend to work longer hours, sometimes struggling to shake that feeling that we have something to prove but also knowing that we have to work that much harder to “earn” our role and the respect of our peers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all of my male colleagues are, and have been, like this. But there has been a large enough proportion that it has been exhausting. And yet I continue along my chosen career path, because why should I give them the satisfaction of running me off and winning.
But males aren’t the only problem. Unfortunately, this experience can turn some women brittle – resulting in them feeling insecure of other strong women and doing their best to pull them down. When in a work context, this usually manifests as bullying.
With all of this, it takes so much time and energy to take part in my working life, that my real life – you know, the part that is supposed to be the most important – suffers. The role of a leader can be overwhelming and incredibly draining all on it’s own – but when you throw in all of the above… complete and utter exhaustion ensues. This exhaustion often means needing weekends to recover just enough so that I can face the grind of the next week. Sometimes the negative interactions with people all week make me want to hide out and avoid the world when I’m not at work. And boy, have I lost count of how many times now in the last 25 years I have burnt myself out. I’m currently recovering from my latest case of burnout.
But you may be wondering why I have chosen to post all of this here. Well, there is some news that came out of New Zealand last night/this morning. Someone who had been experiencing all of what I described above, but amped up to the nth degree thanks to the level she reached and being in the public eye, chose to step off the grind. And disappointingly, soon after came an analysis of how she was letting down her colleagues, her party and her country. That it was understandable that she had made the decision as a human, but that she didn’t have the luxury of doing that and should have stayed.
So I ask you this:
If I find that I am done, completely tapped out with no more to give, and knowing that I just can’t give my job what it needs any more, is it wrong to step down? No.
If there is a big project that my team is working on and in order to win the bid I have to put in 16 hour days for the next 10 months to try to win it, is it wrong of me to say “I don’t have the energy for those 16 hour days, and I can’t be the asset you need”? No.
Even if I could see some way to crawling through those 10 months to win the bid, but think it isn’t fair to the organisation that awarded us the project for me to step down from leading it immediately afterwards, is it wrong of me to think that? No.
So if I find the energy to work through 10 more months to win a bid, then I have to stick around at least another two years to work on the project and make sure it is ready to hand over to a successor… is this a realistic expectation of me when I am struggling to hold it together now? And when I know that I won’t make the 10 months, let alone 3 years or more. All the while having to put up with the additional exhaustion brought from the misogyny, extreme bullying and repeated burnout.
Regardless of whether the general feeling of whether I have done my job well or not, I should be accorded the respect of being able to say when enough is enough and not having to be told that I am letting everyone down. Which is something more often women get accused of, not men (yes, there are exceptions of course, I’m talking proportionately).
It’s exhausting being a woman in a male-dominated field. It’s even more exhausting being a woman leader. I think it’s about damn time a little respect was given for one of us folding and saying life should be about more than exhaustion, it’s time to put other, more important, things first.