Being a woman without having to apologize

When I started working at one of the top international development institutions, I was only 27. Apart from having all right qualifications, I was also good-looking, dressed to impress, sang semi-professionally and enjoyed life to its fullest. I quickly discovered that the combination was not advantageous at a place I had dreamed of working. The occasional remarks like, ‘Isabella is out dancing, while we do serious work here’, ‘have you met our singer consultant?’, ‘she just enjoys life too much…’ quickly made me really uncomfortable, while the looks that could be summed up by ´what is this pretty girl doing at a serious institution like this? ´ started eroding my confidence. I quickly went from focusing on my work to questioning my own qualifications. I soon realized that I would never be taken seriously here, independent of how hard I worked or tried to prove myself as a qualified professional. I was unhappy trying to be a different version of myself. My dream job had quickly turned into a nightmare, so I decided to leave without fully understanding the reasons.

Today, a decade later and lots of soul-searching past me, I still do independent consulting work for this institution, while I run my own wellness business. It took me a while to process how I had felt and what it all meant to me and ultimately for other women in the professional world. The conclusion was: as women we have to play down our looks, suppress our passions and emotions, leave our unapologetic real selves buried deep inside to fit in the professional world. And that’s what a lot of us women have been doing to climb up the ladder of professional success. Giving up parts of ourselves, of what it means to be a woman to have ´equal rights´.

But do equal rights represent the real conflict we face as women? We are not created equal. We bear children and we do care to raise them; we menstruate and do need a slack when it’s that time of the month; we do care about people’s emotions and that community-building is an important part of our work; most of us have an entire household on our shoulders and that’s a full-time job; and yes, we have our passions, mood swings, so stay clear when we get emotional!

We weren’t created equal. We are our own beings. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? Have you peaked inside to try to untangle that complex self that’s hiding there? If you are aware of yourself, then you’ll have no problem admitting that as a woman, you are different and need a completely different set of rules to live by to be fully fulfilled. That’s not only nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for; it’s something to celebrate! Imagine if we were all equal: what a dull place the world would be!

The problem is that we were born, raised, and continue living in a society, where rules were men-made. Until recently, the world had no women in the workforce, policy-making, academia, or any sort of decision-making institutions. So most of the decisions about how to set up, run countries and institutions, how do business, how to raise children, or even how to have sex were unilaterally decided by men.

Though things are changing and more women are running countries and businesses, our mindsets are still very much operated by the old world order. We might be socially more liberated, but we are just as trapped as before by our own minds and the limitations we’ve set for ourselves. Why? Because we measure ourselves up to the benchmarks set by men and our aspirations are dictated by the goals they have set up for us centuries ago.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that as women we are raised to be less rebellious and more amicable than our male counterparts. End result? We don’t question why we have to follow the rules of the game that were not designed by us and without considering how we might like things to be different.

Now, this doesn’t mean rebelling completely against all the existing systems and demanding immediate changes. But it does mean a lot of questioning and soul-searching. Why do we only have 3 months for maternity leave? Why do we need to maximize profit and minimize costs without taking into account the social and environmental damages? Why the 40 hour workweek? Why can’t we work from home more often? Women’s rights are about the courage to say no, I’d rather do things differently, even when that means breaking away.

Today, my professional work is not separate from who I am. It’s actually an integral part and an extension of what I want to accomplish as a woman. My work is hard and demanding, it requires a lot of risk-taking, dedication, strong leadership, and detailed administration. But it also exudes femininity: its fun, upbeat, community-centered, flexible, passionate and sexy.

Following someone else’s set of rights, even if they are equal for everyone, doesn’t bring us closer to liberation. Being a free woman is about saying, ´I am more than this! This is not working and I do NOT have to apologize to anyone´. Let me do things differently, because being a woman stands for change, passion, community, versatility and dedication. Being a woman is also tightly intertwined with being a mom, a wife, lover, an artist, and whatever else you decide to be. What does being a woman mean to you? Let’s create our own rules. One no at a time.