Risky Women by Megan Ragsdale – purchase now on Amazon

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How We Turn Against Ourselves

I am not sure exactly when I stopped listening to my intuition in favor of worrying about what other people thought of me. But by the time I was seventeen I struggled with honoring my gut instinct. 

Raised by a no-nonsense, Brooklyn-born mother, I had a natural propensity to distrust people out of the gate, but my parents also prized politeness when raising myself and my sisters. As I got older, I realized that in the name of civility, I had stayed in many difficult and even dangerous situations. I chose to ignore my intuition rather than make someone else feel uncomfortable. 

This was reinforced during my first job out of college. I studied journalism, and after realizing that I didn’t want to slug it out in rural markets doing stories about the state fair, I started working behind the scenes, doing video production and scripting for the state of Georgia. I worked with men who were my father’s age. They smoked and drank, swore like sailors, and kept shit from their wives. Despite the differences between us, I got along well with them. They didn’t treat me like I was special, and I got to experience what life in a perpetual men’s locker room

was like.

This was back in the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, and the goal then was to fit in. You were considered a successful woman if you had the respect of the men you worked with but didn’t require them to change. Now that sounds so archaic and, well, wrong. That meant having to endure less than respectful conversations about women, but that wasn’t the worst of it. One man regularly pulled his penis out just to shock everyone, and my boss once wrote me an email expressing that he wanted to sleep with me. He put it in writing! I think I first read it at work, which was especially horrifying since we all sat in the same set of offices. He was married, had horrible body odor, was not attractive, and was at least twice my age. Still, he felt free to send that to me, his employee. I went home feeling ashamed. 

As women, we spend years building skills that allow us to contribute and add value to our team, and what we get in return is some version of,  “I want to have sex with you.” After reading that email, it felt like all I was to them was window dressing. I wasn’t there for my talent; I was there so they could gawk at me. Did they all think that, or was it just him? Did any of my contributions even matter? Even though it was clearly his issue, I wondered what I had done that emboldened him to talk to me like that. I took smoke breaks with him—did that make him feel like I was interested? He did confide in me that he had a fetish for seeing women smoke. He was really kinky and weird about it. Whatever the reason, what was I supposed to do now? I remember forwarding the email to my mother for safekeeping in case I needed to “use it one day.” It never occurred to either of us that I should be using it the very next day to get him fired. Nope, I thought I was the one who had to leave, and I did. I knew I’d never be comfortable again after that email, and I didn’t want to go through the embarrassing process of reporting him to HR. 

Back then, he wouldn’t have been fired anyway, only reprimanded, which would make sitting in the dark editing bay with him even more uncomfortable. Looking back, it’s easy to be angry at myself for not standing up for my boundaries, but back then, at twenty-three years old, all I knew was that women who complained became targets. And more than anything, I didn’t want to be treated like I wasn’t on the team. That meant I had to turn against my own intuition and not rock the boat of the workplace. 

That experience was just the first chink in my armor. I went on to contend with many more senior male leaders and clients who tried to corner me at parties or test the waters for clandestine affairs, with absolutely no interest from me. That just made me work harder, because I kept thinking that if I could outpace everyone else on a team, my work would make me more respected, and I would finally be treated as an equal. I was great at what I did, and because I didn’t want any special treatment, I worked especially hard to act more like the men who surrounded me; hardened, tough, and confident. Eventually, I had no work/life boundaries. I was resentful of everyone around me for “making” me do work I didn’t want to do, and I devolved into a working style fueled by thoughts of anger, defensiveness, and revenge. I was coiled up like a cat, ready to pounce at any moment and had traded my more evolved judgment for misguided instinct. If I had attempted to listen to my intuition, it would’ve been like turning a radio dial where every channel sounded like static. I went from being on autopilot at work to the bar with my friends, numbing any chance of finding my internal compass again. 

My experience isn’t unique. Many women lose touch with their intuition over time, and the process starts when we’re very young. A visit to a big box retail store will show you how young the “pink and blue” divide begins, so even our interests are curated from an early age. Some studies show that girls begin to doubt their own intelligence as young as age six. In a 2018 study by marketing research firm Ypulse and The Confidence Code for Girls, researchers found that confidence levels for girls drops by 30 percent between ages eight and fourteen. Three out of four teenage girls worry about failing, and the percentage of girls who say they “are not allowed to fail” goes up by 150 percent between the ages of twelve and thirteen. The same phenomenon does not occur among boys of the same age—and some studies even report levels of outsized confidence. The age at which kids think women can be as smart as men drops dramatically around first grade. 

The systemic issues of nurture versus nature that work against women and girls begin so early that they can sneak up on us, like they did with my own daughters when they began to worry about their appearances and doubted their abilities at an age so young it broke my heart. In school, as a young girl, intuitive attempts to get excited or be spirited get stamped out of us in favor of being quiet, obedient, and pleasing others. “Boys will be boys,” but girls better fall in line. We’re taught “stranger danger” at a young age, and we start to recognize who the creepy adults are, even if we can’t verbalize why we don’t want to be around them. We’re taught never to walk alone at night and never to abandon our girlfriends at a party. But what never gets talked about is the systemic issue, and we never get an explanation for how, or even if, the world is fighting to protect women and girls. Rather than hold victimizers accountable, we are expected to carry that additional burden throughout our lives and hone our survival skills. But while we’re being taught that we need to be warriors and defend ourselves, we’re also being told that we must ignore our intuition in favor of being polite, agreeable, empathetic, and the caretakers of the community. Go ahead and take a Krav Maga self-defense course and learn how to disembowel an attacker, but make sure you are home in time to cook dinner, help with homework, and drive your elderly mother to the doctor.

Over time, all these mixed messages solidify into misguided beliefs that we internalize and program into our autopilot function without ever examining or questioning them. We then carry around this layer cake of shit throughout our lives, doing and thinking the same things again and again because it’s what we’ve always done and thought. We hold our car keys between our knuckles to fend off attackers without ever asking ourselves why we don’t demand more from the people who are really hurting us. We agree to stay home when little Susy gets sick even if we’re in the middle of a major business deal. We don’t meet many women business owners, so we never think this might be a viable path for us either. We just accept this is the way things are and assume that’s how they will always be. Until you analyze your thoughts and beliefs, you might never know how many of them are not in tune with your intuition. You could continue to turn against yourself while leaving the door open for fear to influence your decision-making.

This is an excerpt from my new book Risky Women: How to Reach the Top Levels of Leadership or Know When It’s Time to Get The Hell Out. Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Porchlight.

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