Women have no skills.
(if you just listen to what they say…)
THE WOMEN BEND
From the first minute I arrived at Exosphere, I acted like everyone else: I picked a chair inside the half-circle, trying to figure out which one was the best, looking around and smiling at people that were still strangers to me. We sat, and I looked around a bit more. I counted: 1, 2, 3…9 girls, out of… 27 people. Okay, that’s not much. And the staff? All men. Okay. But hey, there are ladies in an entrepreneurship boot camp — that’s already something! Most of them were seated next to each other, in a corner. After the introduction, we had our first “exercise”. Each of us, one by one, had to share our 3 main skills.
The men went first, because they were the ones seated at the end of the U. They started talking, with a confident voice: “I’m good at public relations”, “I’m an economist”, “I‘m a programmer”, “I’m a connector”, “Training and speaking”.
Fear started growing inside of me.
“What am I gonna say? What skills do I have? Come on, there must be one thing I can say! Something that will look serious and impressive and that will allow me to sit back without blushing… Come on!!”.
Then the women corner arrived. “I don’t really have a skill, and I don’t have an idea… but I’m really excited about helping all of you in your projects!”, “It’s more about soft skills than real skills… “, “I’m good with people“, “I’m open minded…”, and it went on.
On my turn, I heard myself stammer, searching for words that I didn’t really believe in. With a few exceptions, all of us women in the group, if you were to hear us during those 30 minutes of self-introductions, didn’t have any “real skills” (using some of our own words).
This moment keeps repeating in my head and what struck me the most, was that it’s not about choosing one word or another, but it’s how you say it.
Because a guy will say with total confidence that he is a “connector”, whereas a woman will say with an excuse in her voice that she is “good with people”. In essence it is the same meaning, nothing different between these two concepts. But in one case, it seems like an actual skill, that’s credible, and important, whereas in the second it’s back to the “I’m good with kids” pattern.
Because YES, being good with people IS a skill, a useful and powerful one, but saying it like you’re trying to justify yourself makes it look small, unimportant, and futile. That’s what we do.
I was mad, and especially mad at myself. First because, when I had seen the other women lacking confidence I had thought “Oh that’s okay, they’re doing it too, so I won’t stand out as the shy one!”. THAT is a stupid thing to think and because I had fallen into the trap. I heard myself using this word, “connector”, just because I had heard it from a guy’s mouth a few minutes before, and I heard myself saying it as if I was sorry of something.
I had fallen into the trap of thinking I was less than a man.
Of course I’m not saying that this was in any case the guys’ fault. They were all incredibly nice to us since the beginning and some of them must have been pretty scared during this first exercise too. But, I won’t be talking about them; I want to focus on the women, and I want to share my own perception as a woman of this experience, and how I witnessed the women around me evolve during those 8 weeks.
DISCOVERING AND OPENING UP
During the first week, a lot of the women kept quiet during the sessions. But throughout the weeks, we became less and less afraid of showing our weaknesses or our fears.
Some of the women expressed how hard it was for them to talk in public. One of them talked about leaving the boot camp during the first week, because she felt alone there. I didn’t know any of them at that time, but I could see that she had no reason to feel that way. How vulnerable she must have felt to actually think that, and even believe it when there was no real evidence of that.
Things started to change because with the help of the facilitators, and of the entire group, we were creating a safe environment. It was an environment where you could feel that there was no judgement. Of course it takes time, it’s a process, and it takes constant work and discipline to actually accept who you are and value what you are saying. Regardless, it was an incredible start and men were part of it, with us. They also let us see their vulnerability, and they listened when we showed ours.
That is when you really start to see people, to look at them the right way.
I get it, it’s harder for a woman because we have so many protective layers, so many “make believes” that we use: the internal ones, the walls that we build of course, just like men, but also more external ones like our clothes, makeup, jewellery etc. There are so many accessories available to disguise ourselves or to show one side of us if we want to. They can be totally harmless of course, but consciously or unconsciously, they can be very significant.
Week after week, we broke those walls, and protections. Of course in between we rebuilt them, bit by bit, but with less height. Throughout this process the people around us started developing this amazing super power that enabled us to see through those walls.
I had the pleasure during this boot camp, to discover those women through those walls, parts of their stories, their aspirations and, their fears. Often, the more protected they were, the more easily you could have misjudged them, and the more amazed you were afterwards.
The one who almost left the boot camp, a beautiful Brazilian, had been through so much in order to arrive here. She ended up being one of the most joyful participants in the group, but most of all, she was the most dedicated entrepreneur among all of us (men included), working endlessly, knowing what she wanted from this program, daring to ask the right questions, to fight for herself and for her businesses. Yes, businessES. She has 2, and she is only 30 years old.
Another one, a graceful American, had the courage at only 22 to leave her home city and an oppressive environment, take a plane to the end of the world and face an intensive entrepreneurship boot camp without knowing anything about the subject (she is an anthropologist). She even decided to stay on in Chile for a while to figure out the next steps of her life.
Again, how brave is that?
An English woman, who had expressed her deepest fear of speaking out in public, was soon the irreplaceable ear you would go to if you had something on your mind, she was the beautiful serene voice who would cheer you up, give you wise advice, ask you how you were today and really mean it. She was the one who had said during the very first day that she was a “people person”, in a shy voice. There was nothing to be shy about. She is indeed a powerful and incredible people person, which is a very rare and precious skill to have.
Here are just some examples of the incredible women I discovered during this bootcamp. There were others and they all taught me something in their own unique way, without knowing it.
I’m amazed, and quite frankly, a little bit taken aback by the fraternity, or should I say, sorority, that was built during this program. Just like that, naturally, we gathered together, whether it was to help one of us on a project idea or to simply share a meal, or of course, to share some drinks.
During one of the Girls Nights, another Brazilian (yes we were lucky, we had many Brazilians to keep us smiling throughout the boot camp!) asked us about our “impossible love stories”. Yes, this is cliché, women talking about love, but this is not how it works with the women of Exosphere. What began as a simple conversation among us, ended up being this incredible, crazy project of writing a book in a week. Yes, in a week.
Led by our very dynamic Brazilian friend, most of the girls wrote down their stories, which were then read and corrected by a kind and committed native English speaker, we got a cover book and… voilà! It was a beautiful thing to witness, and it showed the dedication women can have when they want to build something that they care about together. It was really hard for some of us to write down on paper those very intimate moments and feelings, and to allow it to be published. It was an amazing act of faith. Most of all it showed the confidence we were able to build and gain by being in this environment, pushed by other women, cared and listened to by other women.
WE STILL NEED TO FIGHT
And I think that is why I am so happy and proud now that we are doing Athena, a women only Exosphere program. I have to admit, I was against it at first. I don’t like “women only” anything.
I’ve always been around boys and appreciate their company, I was lucky enough in my life to never have to feel that they were a threat, or “assholes”, and all the men in the Exosphere boot camp proved to be kind, interesting, caring and compassionate individuals.
However, the gender gap in entrepreneurship is a reality. It was a reality in our bootcamp, and it is one in every single country in the world. And it’s not only a matter of facts, but a matter of perception. In a very interesting article on Entrepreneur.com, “Are Men Better Entrepreneurs Than Women? That’s the Perception”, a specialist on gender balance describes 3 different studies conducted by different prestigious universities, that all end up at the same conclusion: “People form perceptions of what an entrepreneur looks like, and he is male. That (conscious or unconscious) perception leads men andwomen to judge male entrepreneurs more highly than female entrepreneurs.”
So I’m wondering about all the women who find our website by chance, or any entrepreneurship program, who were not convinced by members of the team, friends, boyfriends or parents to come: do they think that “this is not for them”, that they are not worth being part of it? Unfortunately I think a lot of them do.
Because of all those facts and all those perceptions, we judge ourselves, we think that we’re not capable, that we don’t know, that we’re going to fail, that we’re less than men. This greatly affects our confidence, and our capacity to click the “apply” button on an entrepreneurship boot camp where we know we’ll be standing next to men, that are going to be judged next to them. So yes, I think we still do need women entrepreneurship programs. I hope this will be irrelevant in a few years, that it will considered a stupid and crazy idea. But for now, it’s important that we gain confidence, and that we realize our strength, together.
THE POWER OF KNOWING WHAT WE DON’T HAVE
Our biggest strength in the end, can be what we consider our main weakness today. The American author and aphorist William Feather said:“Being educated means being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.”
We are too conscious and remember more about what we don’t know, about what we don’t have: we are not men. It can take many aspects: lower wages or less qualified jobs for example, as well as take a very critical dimension in some countries, cultures, or communities, where women are fighting, literally, for gender equality, where they are fighting just to be women, and where not being a man means restrictions, shame, uselessness or even death.
Yes we are not men, we don’t know what it’s like to be a man, to work like a man, to think like a man, that’s a fact, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And that’s okay. That’s great. In the same article the author continues saying: “just to recognize a true ‘I don’t know’ may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we are travelling in the right direction toward the truth.”
The moment when we realize that it’s okay not being a man is also the moment when men will realize it’s okay for us not being men. I think that is a part of what happened during those eight weeks: I saw them, me, gaining a lot confidence, being prouder and prouder of all the differences that make us who we are, and gaining a lot of strength from the fact that we were all in this together; even if it was unconscious, knowing other women were undertaking the same path, was incredibly helpful.
That is why I think Athena is going to be amazing, and why it is still necessary to have boot camps for women: to have more women like the ones I had the chance to meet and engage with, daring to click on the apply button, and gaining more and more confidence in a safe environment, pushed and led by other powerful women.
So I can’t wait to see what this experience will bring, to meet all those women who will dare to participate, to share and to create with us, and to whom I will be able to say “Welcome to Athena”.
Thank you to all the women of Exosphere who shared those moments with me, who agreed to let me write about their stories, and who made this article better by their suggestions, advices and corrections.
Adèle Galey was a participant in Exosphere’s boot camps and part of the Athena team.