What should girls and young women do if they want to make a difference in the world? Just start.
This is the advice of human rights campaign director at GetUp! Shen Narayanasamy.
“Don’t wait until you have perfected everything,” Narayanasamy said at a panel discussion at Daily Life‘s Women of the Year event last week.
It’s great advice, not just for budding young activists, but for women more generally.
One reason women avoid starting is that we’ve been schooled to be perfect from a young age. From constant pressures to look flawless, to being kind and sweet, and only opening our mouths if we know the answer and won’t cause offence, women are taught that failure is not an option.
I see it in my friends who won’t apply for jobs unless they not only meet, but also exceed every criteria.
I have a friend who’s the most qualified writer never to have written. She’s completed creative writing courses and workshops, professional writing and editing courses, and then humanities courses to broaden her general knowledge.
She comes top or near the top of her class in every course she’s taken. Yet she’s barely produced a finished work or published a word.
She’s been preparing and planning for her writing career for more than a decade, but she’s convinced the next qualification will make her ready. Inevitably, it never does.
It’s a common mistake. As a journalism lecturer, my husband Chris encourages his students to pitch their work to editors to try to get published – and paid. His male students do it: emailing editors, getting rejections, getting feedback, and eventually getting their work published and earning their first pay cheques.
His female students are reluctant to pitch their work to editors. Why? Because they’re not ready. Their work isn’t good enough yet. They still have so much to learn. They haven’t finished their degree. They don’t have a piece of paper saying they’re qualified.
Often the female students are just as – if not more – accomplished writers, but it’s the male students who graduate with a portfolio of published work, invaluable feedback from editors and a network of contacts.
In many ways, it’s understandable women fear starting, and instead get caught up in the trap of perpetual preparation. Starting takes courage. Starting takes a willingness to fail. Starting means you’re going to make mistakes. And women often pay a higher price for imperfection than men.
Take Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer. Mayer credits her success with finding the courage to do things she wasn’t ready for. At a commencement address at the Illinois Institute of Technology, she said “For me, and I assume for many of you, it gives you that uneasy, upset feeling in your stomach. That sense that this time you may have gotten too close to the edge.”
“But in pushing through that discomfort you’ll learn a lot more about yourself. You’ll learn to do something you didn’t think you could do, or you’ll learn where your limits are. Either is valuable,” she said.
In recent weeks, the business press and some commentators have been calling for Mayer’s head, with one NYU professor of marketing calling for the company to be “euthanised” and describing Mayer as “the most overpaid CEO in history” who only kept her job because she’s pregnant.
Let’s just repeat that: Mayer is the most overpaid CEO in history.
That includes some pretty stiff competition from male CEOs such as Kenneth Lay who oversaw the destruction of Enron, Bernard Ebbers, the former CEO of WorldCom, and Dick Fuld, whose tenure at Lehman Brothers not only resulted in the largest bankruptcy in US history but also triggered the global financial crisis.
Locally, Mayer is apparently worse than Qantas CEO Alan Joyce whose “negotiating approach” to unions resulted in the entire fleet being grounded. Crucially, it never affected his position. It also includes Mark McInnes, the disgraced former CEO of David Jones, who left the company after inappropriate behaviour towards a female staff member, but who is now lionised as CEO of the Just Group.
Given that cast of characters, Mayer should surely be well down the list of most overpaid CEO in history, but we’re told the only reason she still has a job is because she’s playing the baby card.
While the penalties for female mistakes and imperfection are unjust, the costs of inaction are worse. By refusing to start, we condemn ourselves to a bleak series of ‘what could have beens’.
More broadly, the reluctance of women to start means we risk living in a world without women like Marissa Mayer and Shen Narayanasamy – women who trail blaze or make the world a better place by their courage and determination to speak the truth and fight for what’s right.