Sunday 20 January 2019

Oh Amy, please don't belittle yourself

Women constantly disparage themselves at work, even when they are an Emmy award-winner, writes Sophie Donaldson

If Amy Schumer doesn’t believe in herself, what hope is there for the rest of us?
If Amy Schumer doesn’t believe in herself, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

When Sheryl Sandberg, author and CEO of Facebook, published her manifesto Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in 2013 she couldn't have anticipated how the world would change for women in the next few years.

If #MeToo is our feminist battle cry, consider Lean In a murmuring of discontent. It tapped into the well of doubt that resides within most women, then equipped them with the self-belief and drive necessary to succeed in a male-dominated world. A few short years later, women are demanding change in the workplace - equal pay, equal opportunities and transparency from their employees. It is impossible to glean how much influence Lean In has had on this generation of working women, but it must be counted as one of the ripples that culminated in this wave of change.

Sandberg was criticised by some for what was considered a narrow world-view of working women, who were mostly wealthy and white, which seems sort of bizarre given that Richard Branson has doled out career advice in a library of books. No one seems to mind that the author lives on his own private island.

Nevertheless, Lean In has struck a chord with all sorts of people, selling 4.2m copies and counting.

One of Sandberg's most controversial assertions is that women are responsible for holding themselves back by downplaying their skills and achievements. Critics took umbrage with this stance for its failure to acknowledge that there are powerful historic and societal forces at play that also determine whether or not a woman will reach her potential at work.

Whether you have any regard for Sandberg or not, it's quite apparent women constantly belittle themselves in the workplace, no matter how obvious their achievements.

Last week, actress Amy Schumer was nominated for a Tony award for Best Actress in a Play for her role in Broadway hit Meteor Showers.

Despite having won numerous accolades including an Emmy and Critic's Choice Award, it took her around 24 hours to tell her 6.8m Instagram followers that she doesn't think she has "a shot of winning".

It's unclear why she felt compelled to disparage her own nomination. Some may argue she is just being realistic - she is, after all, up against stage veteran Glenda Jackson, who has been nominated for a Tony five times, while this is Schumer's first nomination. Indeed, Variety magazine has already mused that Schumer's nomination came as a huge surprise, despite naming Meteor Showers as one of this season's hits.

Or perhaps Schumer's self-deprecation is symptomatic of something far more pervasive among women at work.

It seems that no matter how much glowing feedback, promotions or industry awards are bestowed on them, some women are simply unable to acknowledge their own talent. Not only do they fail to acknowledge it but they seek to actively diminish it rather than risk being seen as arrogant, conceited or even worse, ambitious.

The Emmy award-winning Schumer may be seen as something of a rookie among seasoned thespians, but being considered an underdog is the fire in many people's belly. While men appear to thrive when they are pitted against the odds, women seem far more willing to admit defeat before the battle has even begun.

This isn't a biological condition. Women aren't born less competitive, despite that memo last August from a former Google engineer who said women were less driven than men, and therefore less suited to tech jobs. That engineer was fired, but his memo articulated the unconscious bias that dogs women in the workplace and grinds down their self-belief. Schumer's Instagram post is evidence that no matter how high you climb, it's near impossible to escape that feeling that you'll never be good enough.

It's utterly disheartening to see somebody of Schumer's acclaim react so negatively to positive recognition, particularly because, as women, most of us have done the very same thing. Most of us find it difficult to accept a compliment about our appearance, let alone our talent. More often than not we give in to that guttural reaction in which we deflect and then disparage. Compliment our hair and we'll show you our split ends; nominate us for a Tony and we'll insist we haven't got a chance.

Sunday Independent

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