On success and things

From the time I was very young, I played co-ed sports. I shared a soccer field and a baseball diamond with girls and boys alike for the first five years or so of my athletic career. On those fields, I often sat in a support position, on the sidelines, or in distant right field. The boys played the ‘good’ positions, the fun ones, where all the action happened. It made sense to me. I was talented, but they were, more often than not, bigger and stronger. They were faster, more athletic, more adept for the intricacies of the game. As a girl, it bothered me a little, but I understood. It made sense; they had a physical advantage. So, I thought, they will be good at sports. They will win the games. But I will be good at school. I will be smart. I will win in the classroom. It will be fair and balanced; we will each have our strengths and weaknesses. Twenty years later, my partner and I babysat for a friend. When the girl’s parents returned, she told her mom, “Kelsey and John are both fun. John is fun because he runs and plays, but Kelsey is fun because she is clever.” I felt proud.

I graduated to girls-only sports teams, and then from high school, and I went off to college. I was smart, still, maybe one of the smartest, but I met new teachers and new classmates who didn’t know that about me yet. And I found that I wasn’t the loudest, nor the most confident. There were men in my classes who could comment on things so quickly and effortlessly, while I preferred to gather my thoughts before I spoke. By the time I was ready, it was often too late. So I spoke less, and when I received a syllabus that told me 10% of my grade would be based on in-class, verbal participation, I thought, they will get those points. It will help their grades. But I will have my papers and my exams. I will be good at those. And I will still do well, probably better in the end, and as long as I know and my professors know that I am smart, it will be alright. I will succeed the way I want to succeed.

I graduated from college, a great college, magna cum laude. It was 2010; I took the first job that was offered to me. There weren’t many, and the people seemed nice. It was an internship with the potential to grow into a full-time role. I did everything right. I asked for more work and for opportunities to learn about new things. At the end of my internship, my supervisor told me, “I think you’re holding back. I’m not going to hire you until I see your full potential.” So he assigned me the task of writing a business plan for a branch of the company he wanted to pitch to the founders. I built charts and projections and value propositions. I wrote the plan. He pitched it and they approved it. A new website was launched. I was granted a full-time job, at a salary I felt was low. I told my supervisor I had compared it to what my peers in similar roles were making; he told me “you aren’t going to get more money just because you want to make as much as your friends.” I pressed on. I got a raise. I left without giving two weeks’ notice; the last thing I heard before I walked out the door was “I can’t believe you’d do this, after all we’ve done for you.”

I worked for a woman-owned business. My boss was tough, but she was thoughtful. She asked how I felt. I had never been asked how I felt at work. She put me in charge of things. I felt like I knew what I was doing. It was a small company, and I wanted more. I thought I deserved what I wanted.

So I left and went to work at a growing agency, founded by three men. They were young and had disruptive ideas in a field that had long been dominated by old, white men. They support me, and do their best to make me feel like I know what I am doing. Over my years with this company, I have never forgotten that I am smart, but I have learned that being smart isn’t enough. I have to be strong and fast, too. I have to be confident and loud. But sometimes, in trying to be all of these things, I come across as “aggressive” or “cold” or “challenging.” Sometimes I attend a conference as an agency executive and I am asked if I am there because I am married to my male colleague. Sometimes the men in the room speak over me, and sometimes they take credit for my ideas. I try to let them know when they do. They often apologize. They do it again. I have learned to expect it.

Every day for many, many years, maybe for most of my life, I have walked onto a field, or into a classroom or an office or a meeting, and I have heard a small voice in the back of my head — a voice that says, “You are smart, but you have to be much smarter than them. You have to try much harder, and speak much louder. But you will get what you earn, and you will be heard. It might not be fair and balanced, but you will succeed.”

I have always believed the voice, even though I had begun to doubt it after a few years in the working world. I started to really believe it again eighteen months ago, when I saw a woman launch her campaign for the office of President of the United States, a woman I had long respected and admired. “She has worked so much harder and been so much smarter for so long,” I thought. “She will get what she deserves, and she will be heard. I really do think she will succeed.” I began to speak up more in meetings. I refused to let men interrupt me before I had finished my thought. When I felt sad or angry at work, I let myself feel those things. I asked for what I felt I had earned, and more often than not, I got it. I felt empowered, and I felt like I was unstoppable, and I felt the same energy from so many women around me. We could do and be whatever we wanted, and we might have to continue to work harder and be stronger, but not forever. We pushed away thoughts that the world could never be fair and balanced. We felt hopeful not only that it could be, but that it would be soon.

On November 8th, I stood in line for an hour to vote in the election. I watched a mother with two young girls ten yards in front of me, and I thought, “How different their lives will be. They might have to work harder than the boys, but maybe not as hard as I did and the women who worked before me. They will see a woman’s name on the ballot, and they will see her win, and they will know: you can be anything, you can carve your own path, and you will get what you deserve.”

On November 9th, we woke up together, as girls and as women, to be reminded of our place. The thoughts we had worked so hard to drown bubbled up to the surface. A friend called the feeling that morning “the sense of a whole life’s worth of stifled shame and disappointment all concentrated into a moment.” So many of us felt it, all at once, but it was the loneliest feeling. It was affirmation that, no matter how much smarter or stronger or faster we are, we might not succeed – and not only that, but no matter how cruel and terrible and unfair the men around us are, the world might not care. Some opportunities just aren’t ours for the taking.

Certain dreams aren’t for us. Certain roles, certain handshakes, certain conversations are not ours to be had. These are not our paths to carve, but to follow. We are often treated like we are out of place, like we don’t belong. We must not be “aggressive” or “cold” or “challenging;” we must be kind and caring and complacent, but also smart and strong and fast and confident, but not too confident, and definitely not loud, and we must be all of these things at once, and we must be them more than men, but in a different and more feminine way. And then we can succeed, but in the way that this world means for us to succeed.

On November 9th, the voice in the back of my head changed. Now it says, “You are smart, but you have to be much smarter than them. You have to work much harder, and speak much louder. And all of that will still not be good enough, but you have to try. And keep trying.”

I am tired. I am not yet thirty years old, and I am tired. It is getting more difficult to work harder and be smarter, but I will try and keep trying. I am privileged to work with people who empower me, to have a partner who admires me, to have parents who have encouraged me, to be surrounded by smart, powerful women who inspire me. But I have learned that I live in a world where so many people around me, more than I thought, do not believe I can or should succeed.

So I am tired. I am sad. I am angry. I am heartbroken, but I will try to pick up the pieces and try to lift up the people around me and try my hardest to hope that, in the future, it will be fair and balanced. Because I desperately, so desperately, want find myself in a place where I can succeed the way I want to succeed.

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