Working with the oral histories I conducted for my book research, I'm delving into the stories of women's early career years, across generations and identity differences. I'm exploring how women established credibility and built confidence when they were young and trying to build a professional presence.
Confidence can be hard to build, and research suggests the gender gap in career-related confidence is especially large in the decade of the 20s, but narrows and can disappear by around age 40. (By age 60, women in the workplace are often more confident than men!)
The book is about bringing your values to work over an entire career, and thriving while creating spaces of inclusion for others. It's really inspiring to see how often grounding into our values builds our confidence. Women I interviewed did things like quitting jobs because they did not feel safe or in their integrity--for example being asked to do things at odds with their values--or asking tough questions when they were being interviewed for a job, letting people know that they were deciding on a place based on its ability to demonstrate diversity and inclusion in the workplace culture.
Even when the situations involved challenging decisions, setting those boundaries based on values always enhanced these women's self worth. The same has been true for me, in battles I've won, those I've lost, and the in between cases.
I remember, in my late 20s, dragging my feet for a very long time signing a contract as an adjunct professor, because I was so disappointed in the compensation. I told the chief academic officer, in writing, that this level of compensation was "de-skilling" the academic profession, and I meant it. I was not at all sure of myself as a teacher yet, but I did feel secure in these values.
Though I did sign the contract, for many years, I carried around a little slip of paper in one of my women's history textbooks from the chair of the department where I taught for that one academic year. It said, "Jodi, the Provost is waiting for you to sign your contract."
Every time I saw that slip of paper, I remembered that I had kept a powerful person waiting, and that I had spoken my truth, even if in the end, I decided I needed the job. And I signed the contract.
Even with a battle "lost," this experience was part of forging the values I would stand for throughout my academic career, for example in working hard to improve the contracts of people in similar situations once I gained a more secure position in the academy.
Values, voice, and integrity go together, at any age. And sometimes the boldness of youth is the strength we can build on, even when our confidence may be shaky in other ways. Shout out to all the young women, and people of all gender identities, doing their best to leverage their confidence by speaking their truths.