Getting Ahead / Speak Up

Do or die: Why women face the pressure to be the best or nothing at all

. 6 min read . Written by Nruthya Johnson
Do or die: Why women face the pressure to be the best or nothing at all

‘How to be respected at work as a woman’. This is one of the top search results on Google, and quite honestly, it is a sad state of affairs. 

It can’t be denied that women face fewer barriers when getting into the workforce. No longer are women facing limitations in the areas they can thrive in. Nor are they forced to quit their jobs when they start their family (at least in most cases). But this does not mean that it’s a bed of roses for us or that we no longer face any issues in the workplace. There is one thing we still struggle with, especially in male-dominated fields: getting ahead.

All throughout our lives, we are in a constant battle with the male sex which has ruled the workforce for decades. We resort to blaming ourselves for not performing better than them when we get snubbed for the recognition we deserve. Because what other explanation could there be? Any time a female sportswoman or a prominent female CEO receives recognition, she is celebrated as the pride of India; as our ‘desh ki beti’. Their wins are categorised by their gendered identity with relation to men. That no matter what they achieve, their role (as a daughter, in this case) comes first. 

Women have to constantly prove themselves to earn a job promotion, more than men. To prove that they belong in the workplace. 

Why women over-achieve

Imposter syndrome plagues all of us. Yet, even as we climb the career ladder, we find ourselves having to prove our worth, often beyond necessary.

women have to prove themselves

Let’s look at India’s prominent cricketers. Tendulkar, Dhoni and Kohli come to mind, but we often forget Mithali Raj, Captain of the women’s national cricket team. She is the only Indian cricket team captain to have led her team in the world cup twice. But her name is often forgotten and not as revered as the others. The unfairness and sexism behind this goes way deep. 

In a study, Leonora Risse found that “women have the equivalent of up to one-and-a-half year’s extra education, and nearly a full year’s extra workforce experience, than what is required for their job.” Another survey based in Australia backed this up. Among the 5000 workers they studied, “men over-invest by up to 4%, while women over-invest by up to 11%.” And by ‘over-invest’, they meant that these workers procured higher credentials than necessary to be promoted or to even be recognised in their own profession. 

Even if there is no visible bias between men and women at work, there is a high chance that those women hold themselves up to a higher standard — as do others — to prove to themselves that they deserve their achievements.

We’re afraid of making mistakes because we don’t want to be ‘the example’ of why women fail or aren’t good enough. 

There are several factors that go into this. Women feel the need to over-achieve because of the implicit biases that are built into the workplace. Familial duties — or the belief that they are invested in such roles — force women to work harder, be better. There is a prevailing assumption that for women, their career is a hobby. That they will continue only till they settle down and start a family. Their leadership abilities are disregarded because they might have become ‘too soft’ the minute they had the baby. As a mother, a woman’s time and competence is questioned. 

Another factor is the supposed lower confidence in their abilities. That women earn less or that they are not promoted as easily or frequently as men is an established fact. Women today are very vocal about their ambitions and goals. Yet the prevailing belief is that women don’t speak up about getting what they want. They do, but they’re just not heard.

Why are we, as a society, so keen on pushing the onus of women not being as successful as men on female behaviour? 

If you think about it, the need to be better can be explained through something as simple as the gender pay gap. Women are paid considerably lower than men for the same work they do even if they are equally qualified and capable. So what, then, becomes the obvious solution for a woman to earn the same as her male counterpart (other than, of course, implementing equal pay for all genders)? She needs to be more qualified and work harder to be at par with her male colleagues. Ironically, while she is over-qualified for her position and can move forward in an ideal world, it is only now that she is truly ‘equal’ to men. 

What makes a woman competent?

In her book What Works for Women at Work, author Joan C. Williams documented what she calls the ‘prove it again’ bias. Take another desh ki beti Dutee Chand who has had to prove herself on the field time and again because of her high testosterone levels.

When we think of high-level positions, we often visualise a man. Joan claims that “women have to provide more evidence of competence than men to be seen as equally competent.” Their achievements are discounted; their expertise questioned. She found that men are judged on their potential (based on the assumption that men are expected to be capable), whereas women are judged based on their performance (because she is a risk, and her capabilities need to be clearly evaluated first). This ‘brilliance bias’ reiterates how a woman’s achievements are attributed to luck as opposed to skills for men. 

women have to prove themselves

Men approach opportunities even when they are not fully qualified. Yet women only do so when they are sure that they are 101% qualified and capable. Not only that, often leaders tend to assign more challenging roles to men rather than women. This often stems from the belief that women aren’t as capable, as readily available, or as flexible as men. And so we end up internalising the need to outperform.

Women’s leadership skills are constantly questioned because their potential is underestimated, even if they perform better than men.

Women do not get the luxury of ‘the benefit of doubt’ as men do. This also explains why a woman’s mistakes are noticed more frequently. Joan also noticed how often women’s ideas are ignored, but once a man ‘steals’ the idea and brings it up as his own, he is suddenly revered. 

Women have to appear stronger than men and work twice as hard to prove themselves. Whatever we do, we must do our best. And still, society regards us as half as good. Despite having fought so hard to claim our place in the world, people continue to consider us weaker than men.

There is no doubt that women are more than capable of doing things. Questioning their worth only leads to women taking the heat to work harder than they need to. Instead of exhausting ourselves, why don’t we just take pride in our achievements? Why don’t we stop trying to prove ourselves? 

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