How Women Overcome Professional Fears

How Women Overcome Professional Fears

by Barbara Reinhold

There's an old saying that when two people get married, six people climb into bed together -- two sets of parents and two lovers. (You can tell how old that saying is; it's more likely to be 10 or 12 people these days.) At any rate, the point is this: What you learned about relationships probably came from your earliest memories and astute observations as a child and an adolescent. And so, no matter how hard you try, that marital bed is crowded with everybody's opinions, fears, hopes and assorted agendas.

And you know what? The same thing holds true for your career. A few months ago, I had a session with a young woman who was finishing her MBA. She was petrified about finding a job. "I want to work in finance, and I did fine in my finance courses, " she said. "But I know I can't do math."

"Really? I thought you said you did well in finance. Who told you you're not good in math?"

"Well, I was never as good as my brothers when we were growing up. And my father always said girls just weren't cut out to work with numbers. My mother never learned to balance the cheque book."

"Amazing," you think. "That couldn't happen to me. How wrong-headed of that family." But you know what? The process of making current decisions based on ridiculous old scripts happens all the time. It's called "premature cognitive commitments." And those old scripts are interfering with women's career decisions every day.

You're immune? I'm not so sure. Answer these 10 questions as honestly as you can, and share your responses with someone you trust. Better yet, share them with a group of women and listen to the themes that surface around you. Help each other to see the lingering effects of those early experiences. Then you'll know whether there are any premature cognitive commitments, in the driver's seat of your career.

  • Which careers did your parents tell you were good for women?

  • How capable are you at dealing with maintenance on your car? How many flat tires have you changed?

  • How cozy are you with computers?

  • How often do you ask for negative and constructive feedback on your performance so you can keep on improving? How did your parents let you know that you needed to improve upon something? How did that make you feel?

  • Who was in charge of making major decisions in your family? Where did the power lie? In your office or workplace, where does the power lie?

  • In your family, how did people let each other know they were displeased? How do you let people at work know what you expect of them and when their performance is problematic?

  • How much education do the women in your family have? How about you? Do you want more?

  • What's the highest post, position or honour that you can remember your parents or other family members telling you to aim for? Have you achieved that goal? Do you think you will? Why or why not?

  • What books did you read as a child and an adolescent? Are any of those themes playing out in your life now?

  • Who is your personal heroine? What steps would she probably advise you to take next in your career?  Are you ready to follow her advice? Why or why not?

So what's the story? Are you following a script that says "Go for it," or one that is whispering in your ear to "Go slowly, don't hurt anyone's feelings and be cautious"? If the message you're carrying around is one of fear and holding back, there are lots of things you can do -- everything from going for counseling, to joining strategic support groups, to reading about women who are getting where they want to go. The one thing you should not do is pretend it doesn't matter. Because it really does. Now is the time to be sure you're the one behind the wheel in your own career.