Leaning In—And Pushing Back

April 24, 2013I graduated from college in 2004 and soon after landed an internship that I fantasized would launch my career. The internship was unpaid, but it came with a guarantee that I would gain valuable experience as a fact-checker for a respected national magazine. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I imagined it would be in the realm of writing and editing, and fact-checking seemed like a useful skill to acquire.

Of course my ability to accept an unpaid internship was a sign of my privilege—I’m the lucky product of generous, financially stable parents and a first-rate education—but I was eager to prove myself to my new employer and get off the parental dole. I took that internship seriously. I showed up on time and never missed a deadline. As soon as I finished one task, I asked for another. And I wrote a few short pieces and asked my supervisor, an enthusiastic young man whom I liked enormously, to help me get them published in the magazine.

My supervisor was supportive and encouraging and told me often that I was a talented writer. But he wasn’t the champion I needed—not because he didn’t want me to succeed, but because he was too busy launching his own career to take an active interest in developing mine. He rarely read anything I wrote right away, and by the time he got around to reading it, it was no longer relevant or timely enough to publish. After a few instances of this, I became discouraged and stopped trying.

Our intern class of six contained only one other woman, and I soon noticed that the male interns were publishing short pieces left and right, both on the magazine’s website and in the print edition. Their ideas weren’t any better than mine (although they frequently generated more of them). They weren’t better writers. One thing they were definitely better at was self-promotion. They didn’t wilt and give up in the face of rejection, and they didn’t take “no” for an answer. They kept pitching ideas, writing articles, and submitting them, whether or not they received encouragement along the way. One man in particular made a pointed effort to ingratiate himself with the magazine’s editor-in-chief. And she rewarded him handsomely: his writing appeared in the magazine several times throughout our internship, and, afterward, he landed a coveted full-time writing job and began freelancing for the magazine on a regular basis.

What conclusions did I draw from this experience? I’d be lying if I said I never felt bitter or resentful. But at some point—usually once you’ve escaped your early twenties—you begin to realize that bitterness doesn’t propel you to the top; it drags you down. And resenting others for having what you want doesn’t get you any closer to having it yourself.

I remember my fellow interns fondly and have followed their personal and professional progress over the years. What I regret most about that internship is not that I wasn’t taken as seriously or mentored as assiduously as my male peers, but why: because I lacked the aggressive self-confidence most men are encouraged to display, and, instead of trying harder, I began to doubt myself. It’s frustrating to feel as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall (or a glass ceiling), but it’s crucial to keep pushing back. I work for Catalyst because I want to help create environments in which talent and hard work are recognized, and women and people of color do not feel as powerless or invisible as I felt back then.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.