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As someone who feels that she fits within the category of a “new age woman,” Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Meta and author of Lean In, hit home for me when she declared that we, as women, “can each define ambition and progress for ourselves,” and that “we must work towards a world where a woman does not yield to the expectations of her set by stereotypes that hold us back.” Now, I am a woman in her mid-thirties, with great ambition for both her career, motherhood, and life’s “extra-curricular” opportunities, but reading Sandberg’s ideas got me thinking about how I actually define myself as a “new age” woman. What does it mean for me? And equally so, how do my colleagues and friends define themselves within this new paradigm?
Over hundreds of years, we’ve come to celebrate the fact that women have boldly pioneered towards equality, both socially and in the workplace. We have been fighting our way up and out of a patriarchal society responsible for many of the lingering expectations and stereotypes that we still come up against today. We have come a long way since the 20th century oppression of many basic women’s rights that we take for granted today, and each generation continues to challenge entrenched patriarchal expectations of women’s role in society. 19th century trailblazers like Elizabeth Caddy Stanton and Rose Scott would no doubt be fiercely proud of the “new age” reality of today’s women, overcoming entrenched discrimination, exploring the far-flung boundaries of our identities and soaring unfathomed heights. According to Fortune, 44 female chief executives lead America’s largest companies, accounting for 8.8% of businesses on the 2022 Fortune 500 list.
So, with that, how does our 21st century “new age” gender paradigm define how we see ourselves as women, in contrast to that of our predecessors? Summoning an opinion on the subject from my varied friendship group, there is a consensus that while society has become easier on us, we may have become harder on ourselves. Talking from common experience (as this is the only space I should share my opinion)- coupled friends with careers and children point to what can be described as a largely unconscious mission to excel as a wife, partner, and mother, whilst also excelling on the job front. Throw in the often unspoken internal pressures to concurrently perform as the ideal friend, sister, daughter, chauffeur, cleaner, chef, shoulder to cry on- then add employee, entrepreneur, or CEO, and the cauldron comes to overflow. Knowing how the females close to me think, it’s not surprising that studies suggest men aren’t nearly as harsh on themselves when it comes to internal expectations of their personal and professional key performance indicators.
A 2009 American study found “that women are also more likely than men to experience feelings of inadequacy at home and at work, and a larger proportion felt they failed to meet their own high standards.” Reinforcing this, the Institute of Leadership and Management found in a study on managers that half of the female ones -compared with fewer than a third of their male counterparts- reported self-doubt in their performance. A survey of women working at Hewlett-Packard also found women applied for a promotion only when they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied when they met just 50%. So, it seems that despite how far we have come, we as women are still held back by our own unspoken expectations of what it means to be a woman.
Well, I have my own ideas about what that means for me.
I show up to work, and when I’m there, I work hard. I listen, I motivate my team, I give my full energy and attention to my employees, and I focus on my career and the growth of the company. When I am at home, I’m with my children. We play, sing (badly!), go for walks, swimming lessons, and read books. I leave any non-urgent work matters inside my phone, and ask my wonderful colleagues for an hour of uninterrupted time with no meetings or calls from 6pm to 7pm for bath, stories, and bedtime- I take this as my lunch break. With offices in Manila and Dubai, and clients spanning the globe, there are times I must be on calls at strange hours across international time zones, yet more challenging is the necessity to be travelling on international flights every few weeks for work. When times are busy, I am extremely lucky to have our long-standing nanny who is able to step in and support my husband with the children, while I take care of my business commitments. When I eat into my time with them, I am riddled with guilt, yet at the same time, I am reminded of what my mother would always say- you are being a role model too, and we all do this in our own way, and within our own means.
When the day is done, I put my feet up and watch a television show, or if I’m not so tired, I could fall asleep as my head hits the pillow. I do my best to relax into a book- however, I wish I was more disciplined about this, as I often find myself on my phone. I have downloaded the Financial Times app in the hope that when I catch myself doing this, I am at least reading in some capacity, and not mindlessly scrolling through emails and pending WhatsApp messages, thinking about the next things on my to-do list. But, no, I’m not perfect, and more often than not, I can’t do it all in a day. This is why I feel immensely grateful to be in the position to have the support of my husband and loved ones, and an incredible nanny who helps me run the household like a tight ship, and truly is a part of the family. Do I wish I could say I could manage it all independently, and do it all brilliantly? Well, in fact, no. Because while I’m a perfectionist, I’m also a realist, and I am kind to myself, and I have made personal choices that allow me to balance my life in the way that best serves me as a passionate working mother.
At the end of the day, we can’t be everything all at once, and we can’t do it all. I once asked my mother, “How did you run an organization with hundreds of employees and take it public, and be a mother to twins whilst managing companies all over the globe? How did you do it all?” In the most matter-of-fact way that only my mother could deliver, she responded, “Don’t be ridiculous, Sophie; you can’t have it all! Enjoy the incredible privilege of being a woman who can have babies, and keep chipping away at your dreams and passions with all the support of your loved ones.” Keeping that thought in mind, it is my opinion that, as a “new age” woman, in pursuing our dreams, we find excitement, in striking a balance, we find satisfaction, and in relishing the simplest things, we find joy. And that magic formula is unique to every one of us.