Political scientists have written articles on why women self-select out of the political pipeline, economists debate reasons for the gender pay gap, and popular publications broach the topic of gender inequality. While aware of the ongoing discussion of gender disparities in the workplace, I struggled to perceive them until recently. As a child, I watched female Marines who worked with my father excel in promoting national defense. Observing those women helped me discern my own interests in national security, foreign policy, and economics. Further, I felt able to pursue work in those fields because I saw some women already there.
I pursued my interests academically and made a strong student. When I began trading the classroom for internships, however, my confidence declined. I hesitated to ask questions, lest I appear uninformed. I was wary of requesting more responsibilities for fear of seeming vain. I was convinced that self-advocacy was unnecessary at best and egotistical at worst. If I worked hard and did thankless tasks, I thought my superiors would notice and I would receive larger roles. Sometimes I did. Often I didn’t. Gradually, my colleagues — frequently, though not always, male — requested and filled those roles instead.
As I was researching for my undergraduate honors thesis, which examines the political representation of women, I realized my hypocrisy. I knew women could hold the same roles as their male counterparts. I supported women taking professional risks, subscribing to research that claims increased representation of women and other underrepresented groups benefits society. At the same time, I was personally pulling back. The voice in my head had become my saboteur, suggesting I tuck tail and run before someone realized I was learning from my work instead of omnisciently breezing by.
In the depths of that imposter syndrome, Project Girls for Girls (G4G) entered my life. G4G connected me to a network of peers in academic and professional situations similar to mine and provided a space where I could share my confidence crisis with others. It also invited accomplished women to speak candidly about their paths to public leadership. I learned two invaluable truths through participating in G4G mentorship circles that I will hold close as I continue my leadership journey: 1) turning to others is not a sign of weakness, and 2) women can hold positions of public leadership without sidelining parts of their identities.
Through G4G I realized that other young women faced the same dilemmas, professional challenges, and harsh internal monologues I did. As we discussed our own experiences, I found new strategies for navigating workplace dilemmas. Moreover, each G4G guest mentor spoke of other women that had supported and counseled her on her road to leadership. In fact, reaching out to others was a commonly reported factor in how guest mentors made career decisions. There is strength to be gained from tapping back into one’s circle. I built my own horizontal networks through G4G, learning as much from my peers as I did from the guest mentors. I will continue to grow those peer networks, reach back to them in moments of need, and lend a hand when peers do the same.
I once believed that to be an impossible dilemma. I thought women had to shed aspects of themselves that differed from their male colleagues. I began the G4G mentorship circle knowing women can lead in principle, but this knowledge came with caveats. Namely, I thought women leaders had to possess an elusive, unknown mix of traits and talents in order to rise to public leadership. By the end of my participant engagement with G4G, I no longer just logically knew that women can lead in practice — I truly believed it. The G4G guest mentors are actively doing so, and speaking with them showed me that public service is not synonymous with thankless struggle. Rather, it is leveraging one’s identity and individual strengths for the public good.
As I pursue my aim of leading in the security space, I intend to mindfully bring my whole self to work and encourage others to do the same. When uncertainty strikes, I will reach back to my peer mentors and remind myself that not a single G4G guest mentor earned her success through passivity. Above all, I will seek opportunities to encourage others wherever I can. Women in public leadership have come before me, and it is my job to move the needle for others. G4G and the support system it helped me build have helped me believe I can do so.