The Public Speaking Enigma — Stop Telling Women They Need More Confidence

I’m terrified of public speaking. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t see my pulse explode like lightning behind my eyes while the embodiment of my childhood self scaled a tree. You’d see a polished woman with a gleaming smile, a woman who appears as though she can’t be rattled. I’d pull it off.

But I’m not perfect, and each time you see a talking head, cross-armed, or upright on stage with a professional photo that hails them as a success, I want you to know – it’s likely an illusion. Exposing our inner world to our outer world would require a daunting degree of integrity, a characteristic far less common than we choose to believe, a characteristic too threatening to our prevailing system of hobnobbery and haberdashery.

Let’s opine. What do you think sets my pulse on fire?

“Preparedness,” say some people.

“Lack of self-acceptance,” others believe.

“Breathing deeply will solve the problem.” Hasn’t worked yet.

“Just think of everyone naked.” Awkward. Not the way to go.

“Focus on the thing itself, the “what” of your art, then you won’t worry about what everyone thinks.”

That’s it. The last one: the “what of my art,” as in “what are you looking at?”

Maybe I don’t want to stand in the limelight. Maybe I’m already always in it. Maybe that’s what it means to be a woman in our society.

Maybe I don’t want more holes poked in my existence because it happens too often.

Maybe I’m working on my baggage.

But when I open up the bag and look inside, it’s filled with the same laundry all women are forced to carry. The same never-ending load.

As a teen, I was sent home from public school by the principle for wearing a pair of ripped jeans that had been patched up.

The reason: “they distracted the boys.”

What do ripped jeans have to do with my performance at school? Why was I penalized for their looks?

As a young professional, I was sent home by the head of the department for wearing a pair of mid-length shorts with a blazer (the same as many on my team) on the hottest day of the year. Of course, I was the only one sent home.

The reason: “If someone hits on you (specifically that man who has a crush on you), that will be a liability for us.”

Why was I penalized for his looks?

I once dated a man with credentials that shot through the roof. I was inspired by his commitment to his job. I aspired to commit to his level of productivity. I appreciated his creativity. Before we began dating, I told him, “I don’t understand why men give women flowers. Why do we rip life from the earth so that we can watch it die? What’s beautiful about that?”

So he bought me wooden roses. “These will never die,” he said.

I was smitten.

But that didn’t stop him from breaking into my email account and slut-shaming me to every person in my network ­– from family overseas to my employer – after I tried to leave him. Imagine walking into the office the next day. At the time, there were no laws to protect me, just the stigma of being known as “the woman who was victimized.” Because, of course, this doesn’t happen to other women, a lot of other women.

Sure it does. It happens all the time. You can turn away,  but it’s not unusual. Worse, just look at what happens to women in porn. Oh, sure, porn is “girl power.” Just think for $1400 a pop, you can take it in the rear. The more violent; the more “It’s just an act. She wanted it. She deserved it.”  I wonder, will it be enough to pay for the prolapse too? One only need to look these women in the eyes to see the truth of their pain.

I’m tired of being judged. For working hard and being labeled a perfectionist, for pushing back and being deemed lazy. For being ignored. For being an outlier on a curve of generalities. For not being enough.

We talk about women’s self-confidence as though it’s women who need to change.

We tell them, lean in. Take on more. Apply for that job because your contemporaries are arrogant. Because they will beat their chests like bullies or strut there stuff like peacocks regardless of whether you apply or not.

We take on more. We take on heaps of unpaid labor and childcare. We tidy homes and prepare meals so others can stand on stage. And when we delegate the work, we load it onto, shocker, other low-paid women. We are bought and we are sold. And when a task goes amiss at our jobs, study after study shows that we take the blame. But we are withheld from receiving the credit.

We are held to another standard.

Then when one female superhero hits the privilege jackpot, and the stars align due to her own countless hours of hard work, and she pushes past the glass ceiling, and it appears on camera as though she is levitating down from the heavens, the reality is she’s crawling to the top, wondering, “how long can I balance in these stilettos before someone pushes me off the glass cliff?”

We seldom look at the data and say, let’s assess our hiring practices so that we weigh in the fact that women, as a whole, are more likely to apply for a job only when they are 100% qualified; that women are more heavily reprimanded when they fail; that they take on more at work; that they are less likely to receive credit. We rarely say let’s reshape our collective behavior so that when a woman fails at low priority tasks when she is performing her high priority tasks in an exemplary fashion, we reward her for taking the logical initiative to do what is better for our companies, and our societies. While we’re at it, let’s pay her for that unpaid labor in some way.

Instead, we tell her: be more confident.

Or we pick a fight – “Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you a “stay-at-home” mom or a “working” mom?” Apparently only one of these two mothers is actually working. “Oh, you’re not planning to have children; that’s very selfish of you; you’re a monster.”

And we subconsciously think, “she’s too pretty to be smart or too female to be a genius (that distinction is for other people).”

We require perfection. But we don’t know what perfect is, let alone when it matters. And yet we have no problem using it as a weapon. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” we say. Of course, afterwards we reprimand her heavily for small mistakes, since anything less than perfect qualifies as a mistake.

Isn’t it time that we simply recognize that she is held to another standard … And we account for it?

What does this all have to do with standing in the limelight?

Nothing.

And yet everything.

Now, look at your daughters. Statistically, 1/3 of them will be sexually harassed at work, and 1/6 of them sexually assaulted.

Is that what you want?

Doesn’t it make you sick?

Are you going to say to them, “be more confident?”

Or are you going to say, “I’m going to fix this.”

Stop saying #Metoo. Start saying #IWillFixThis

Citations:

  1. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/78ggyg/carrie-goldberg-is-fighting-revenge-porn-one-court-case-at-a-time
  2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/26/making-sense-of-modern-pornography
  3. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qbvmz3/a-rosebud-by-any-other-name-would-smell-like-shit
  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/
  5. https://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2015/10/15/a-feminism-where-leaning-in-means-leaning-on-others
  6. https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified
  7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2014/04/28/act-now-to-shrink-the-confidence-gap/
  8. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/07/23/glass_ceiling_study_women_and_people_of_color_are_penalized_for_valuing.html
  9. http://www.forbes.com/sites/petercohan/2012/07/24/marissa-mayers-glass-cliff/#75bcc5a61185
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/14/perfect-girls-five-women-stories-mental-health
  11. https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking_in_the_United_States 
  13. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/female-ceo-blame_us_58100af0e4b001e247df34c5
  14. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/671146/?sc=dwhn
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/upshot/when-teamwork-doesnt-work-for-women.html
  16. http://beta.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-girls-boys-brilliant-20170126-story.html
  17. http://time.com/money/4561314/women-work-home-gender-gap/
  18. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sexual-assault-statistics_us_58e24c14e4b0c777f788d24f 

Tara Makhmali is the author of MISSWIRED, a work of literary fiction, and the CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC.

Available for purchase on Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle

What Working for Two of the World’s Greatest Companies Taught Me About Life

When I originally began writing a novel, I had not one but two job offers from interesting companies. Neither had anything to do with my creative pursuits, not directly. One was from a top IT consulting company. The other, a hedge fund, run by a geopolitical-economist billionaire and meditator known as the Steve Jobs of the financial world. At the time, I remember thinking that anyone who meditates probably sees the need for compassion in the world the way I do, and I hoped that those who held the keys to the kingdom knew something profound about creativity and productivity that allowed them to weave lives together toward progress rather than extinguish it. I also had this hypothesis that, if given the opportunity to work in an environment of radical truth and hyper transparency, the guiding sales pitch of the organization, nothing could blindside me the way layoffs in advertising and publishing had (though I had been fortunate to withstand publishing layoffs and, in fact, gained substantial experience as a result), and of course, there would be a lot less “things are the way they are around here because that’s the way they always are, the way they always will be” whenever I asked the eyebrow-raising questions of “why” and “can we change it so it makes more sense?”

I knew if I took the job in finance, I would be challenged. I knew I would add stronger management capabilities to my arsenal of life experiences. And I felt that, in order to have meaningful impact in the creative realm, I needed to understand how the world actually worked. What is art if not science? What is science if not art?

I’m not going to hide that there was also an ego thing involved. The odds of being hired at the most prestigious hedge fund in the world was something like 1 out of 400, and that’s of the resumes they bothered to look at, which in and of itself made it more enticing. Now, let me tell you; I don’t have an ivy league diploma or a PhD, though I do hold a degree in English, and for a good part of my developmental years, my stepbrother, who I adore, playfully nicknamed me Tarda, mostly to torment me, but he said it enough times that I believed him a little. Up until high school, I had been one of the smarter kids in the classroom. Upon my mother’s remarriage, I lost my sense of identity and confidence and my grades plummeted, partially due to transitioning from schools with fairly diverse student bodies into a top high school that frankly lacked diversity, while, at the same time, adjusting to my new role as hormonal teenage stepchild/sibling. This demise in my grades came as a surprise to some people because, as one person so boldly put it, “I thought that since you were pretty, high school was easy for you.” Of course, this sentiment did not help the situation. In fact, it only fed into the otherness that I experienced during that time period and acutely belittled my achievements and ignored the constant male aggression and violation of me personally and many of my beloved female friends.

Now, despite not having been a top academic performer, I was donned by my classmates with superlatives such as “most likely to succeed in the music industry,” “most musical,” runner-up for “most attractive” (obviously an important life skill), and something along the lines of “most likely to wear a turban around her head and open a Quicki Mart.” (Perhaps one of the more modest racist remarks I’ve encountered over the years.)

But I did have a few other important things going for me. Namely, I was and am a fairly observant person fortunate to have an arguably pleasant personality and a genuine curiosity and caring for human beings that some find refreshing and disarming and others find unsettling and exposing. I have always questioned the way things are to see what’s true, and I am very hard on myself. The other thing I had (and have) going for me is that I am brave.

As an immigrant born into a regime change that forced my family to move across oceans and continents and from state to state, I constantly was changing schools, and hence I grew particularly excellent at handling first impressions. Likewise, as a child from a hated middle eastern country whose family once had everything and then had it taken away, I knew the meaning of humility and gratitude. I knew what it meant to depend on free school lunches, and the kindness of neighbors who looked after my little sister and me while my single mother was in school, and what a toggle coat from the Salvation Army could do for a child through a Michigan winter. I knew what it meant to hold my mother in her arms when there was no one else for her to cry to but her oldest child. ( I love you mom) And believe it or not, this gave me strength; it gave me grit. It gave me a sort of understanding that everything is temporary, even life, but that there is a sort of immortality to compassion.

It also made me want to be liked, as I assume all people do, and I believed that if I could just follow the middle path, I could connect with people from all races and backgrounds and they would find a way to let me into their hearts. And that is how I learned bravery. If you could hand out PhDs for open-mindedness, likability, and picking yourself up by your bootstraps, you may wish to consider me a viable honorary candidate. Okay, back to the job situation …

I assumed that a financial firm that warned the government of the ’08 financial crisis long before anyone wanted to listen and that was capable of managing 200 billion in assets probably had a little insight into the creative vitality I so desperately craved. I always believed that to create great art, one must understand how the world actually works, how business works. Plus, mindfulness in finance just seemed like a good idea, and I figured that, as a do-gooder type, which I still believe most people are, I had a responsibility or the way mom puts it, “the ability to respond,” to the growing need of putting trustworthy people into a shady industry.

So I took the job as a referrals program manager in recruiting for the god of finance. I thought, here is a figure looking to create a new environment of civility and honesty, and we need more companies who are willing to be this way. I want to help. I want to create a pipeline of smart, open-minded people who make excellent life choices, and know how to auto-correct their mistakes because they are relentless self-improvers. Who wouldn’t want to be around people like that?

Also, what would I learn about radical and hyper truth and transparency that I did not already know? Would I gain a deeper understanding of self? Would that which I assumed truthful actually be truthful in application? Would the tenants of hyper truth and hyper transparency actually feed our universal consciousness in a way that created a better world? I wanted to see the wizard in action. I wanted to know how the world really worked.

There were some disadvantages to the position. The hedge fund was in Connecticut and I resided in New Jersey. I had an open question about whether if I loved everything about my job, would an annoying commute matter? Or would my smitten lens merely shift away from the pain and zoom in on the pleasure?

I concluded that if I loved whatever it was that I was about to take on, I would eventually move closer, or it wouldn’t matter. I was also quite fortunate because I had, by this time, immersed myself in the company of my soon-to-be-family, for I was engaged, and my soon-to-be-made mother-in-law (a smart and savvy business mogul with a prestigious MBA under her belt; three successful children; and a coveted executive recruiting firm, among many other grand achievements) chauffeured my 29-year-old arse to and from work; as did a taxicab driver by the name of Nancy, who grew so fond of me that each evening she checked to see where I was, and would continuously ask “are you the only one there again tonight?” Not to mention a generous pregnant woman whose name I wish I could remember, who worked for the firm and sometimes picked me up in the mornings. Here’s where I’d like to point out that women are already helping women; we always are and always have been helping each other, though sometimes people like to ruminate over the baloney of how women keep other women down, which basically just distracts us from the issue of how to get to where we want to be.  

Unfortunately, I quickly learned I was not cut out for the job. Why? Actually, it’s fairly simple, but as many simple things go, they seemed complicated at the time.

One. The commute was killing me. It sounds extreme, but have you tried traveling three states on a frequent basis and upon your journey had to stand under the neon lights of 42nd and Eighth Avenue in the dark wee hours of morning next to Times Scare, across from the peep show place? It is a shock to the soul. Yuck.

Two. There is a difference between truth and transparency and running your mouth like a petulant child, which, as it turns out, is neither completely truthful nor is it actually transparent. In fact, it extinguished the creative energy in which I so excitedly expected to manifest into my own being. The environment I experienced was one part truth; one part transparent; and the other ninety-eight percent was unprocessed, often irrelevant un-amassed data that you or others were vomiting out into the world, either onto yourselves or onto each other, and in many cases this completely buried that one part truth—I found myself constantly holding a shovel, and wondering if I should just go forth and bury myself. I suppose if meditation was a requirement, and not merely a suggestion, there would’ve been a lot less of that. My guess is that the company did not want to seem cultish, but they probably should’ve risked it anyway and mandated it. What is meditation if not the ability to reduce mind garbage?

Three. Transparency is not always appropriate. Sure, I would like to know there’s ketchup on my face. I would like to know I’m walking around with my fly down. But I don’t need it announced over the loudspeaker. There is a spectrum of transparency that either creates fairness or, without tact, creates fear. We spent so much time reviewing videos of people’s utter failures before I even started the work that by the time I began  working I was already afraid. Now, I wouldn’t call it a “cauldron of fear” the way recent articles claim. That’s pretty darn dramatic. But, because I’ve been told, and I believe this to be true, that I am quite brave, and because I felt I needed to be too brave all the time, and because sometimes I couldn’t even muster the desired braveness necessary, I knew something was off. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely made mistakes. I’m not perfect either.

So what did I do? I went back and took the job with the IT consulting firm. And my next role, in some ways, was a perfect fit—help people make sense of boatloads of data, also known as “media asset management.” Only, this time, the data was the exact opposite of garbage; it was treasure. And the people that I loved—my clients—knew how to love me back. And this was a win-win partnership.

I stayed for over a year. I learned things about diplomacy I don’t think I ever would’ve learned had I not been surrounded with such intellectual, compassionate people. I learned that transparency is a card you play when the timing is right. That truth is sometimes useless. That dedication to excellence and precision requires the revelation that what you are and what you create is and will always be imperfect, and that imperfection is what gives life purpose. I learned that at every moment exists an opportunity to create the conditions for productivity, to create the life that you want—the world that you want. I learned that too much diplomacy is a giant waste of time and that it can almost permanently destroy curious minds. I learned that there always exists two games: the game of Creation and the game of Perception, and that your temperament, genetics, upbringing and communication skills can make you better or worse at either of these games. I learned that what works is not usually this or that, but rather a combination of this and that. But only up until a point, where again too much and dilutes creation and renders it useless.

And then I left. Why? Well, that is a post for another day.