Last week, I finally started reading Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" after purchasing it months ago. The book chronicles Sandberg's path in big-business leadership while examining why the ratio of women to men in major leadership roles is so dismal. The second chapter put a name to something I've experienced many times in my life: the imposter syndrome.
Sandberg describes the imposter syndrome as a "phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt." She first heard the term in a speech at an all-female Phi Beta Kappa induction. She recalls: "At last, someone was articulating exactly how I felt. Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn't embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up."
As I read those words, a lightbulb went off in my head. Yes. This feeling that I have been racked with throughout the years—this feeling has a name? And it's something the COO of Facebook felt growing up?
For the most part, men don't have this issue. It, like so many forms of low self-confidence, is overwhelmingly something women suffer. It is only one of the many psychological factors (held by both women and men) holding women back.
It's fairly common knowledge that the vast majority of leaders in politics, finance, business, etc., are men. Sandberg explores why. It's a complicated, interconnected web of learned behaviors and societal traditions. Despite proving over and over that women are just as capable as men, they remain behind and apart. Men are still writing our history—men are still framing our story.
Then, Sunday night, I watched a documentary called "Miss Representation." It's available on Netflix; please watch it. The film focuses on the effect the sudden explosion of media is having on females in their most vulnerable, impressionable years. In the last decade, reality TV, Facebook, gossip websites and YouTube have grown exponentially, to the point where they push more content than could ever possibly be consumed.
And because smartphones are becoming increasingly the norm for younger and younger users, that content is largely available 24/7, with no filter.
The idea of men framing the conversation really hits home with "Miss Representation." The film shares that women hold only 3 percent of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising. That means 97 percent of the stories we consume—whether they be feature-length films or a single magazine ad or something in between—come from an overwhelmingly male perspective.
Think about the women you see in films and TV shows, on magazine covers and runways. They are pornified, photoshopped, plastic. Female characters are mostly a joke. If a female character is intelligent or strong, she is either a shrew, written for laughs, or an anomaly—the one smart woman in a roomful of ditzes.
The way media handle our female leaders in real life is even worse. Condoleeza Rice is a dominatrix. Hillary Clinton is a bitch. Sarah Palin is only good for masturbation material. These are all descriptors various—even legitimate—media used to describe educated, passionate political leaders. Because they are female, they are put down and pornified, just like their fictional counterparts.
The worst part is, it's not just the men putting women down. Women put themselves down. We put each other down.
We need more media literacy of gender issues. We have to realize how the stories, images and sounds we consume affect us and future generations. We have to challenge our own perspectives, and those media try to push on us.
I have to challenge my perspectives. I have to learn to believe in myself so that someday, other girls and women can look at me and believe in themselves.
A group of friends and I share a board on Pinterest called Sheroes, where we pin images of inspiring women: Hillary Clinton, Sally Ride, Martha Graham, Frida Kahlo, Margaret Cho, Susan Orlean, Assata Shakur, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are just a few of the faces you'll find.
Many of these women are beautiful in traditional or unconventional ways, but we didn't choose them for their beauty. Rather, it is their strength, determination, intelligence, bravery, wit and their "I don't give a rat's ass what you think of me" attitude that earns them a spot on the board.
These are the women I strive to embody, not the magazine cover girl with washboard abs and long, bouncy locks. I wish more little girls knew about our Sheroes.
Media can be—and are—harmful. But media can also be inspiring, if and only if we band together and work to make it that way. Even social media can be beneficial. Besides our Shero shrine, I have found in the last year that, through social media, I've built real-world relationships with women that I've known for several years and can only now admit that I've kept at arms length because I was intimidated by their beauty. I almost missed out on supporting and lifting up these smart, sharp women because I nearly let a petty jealousy keep me from pursuing their friendship.
This happens way too often with our gender. Both "Lean In" and "Miss Representation" discuss the importance of mentors and peers. We can't do it alone. Other women—and men—need to help women climb up to the top tiers of success. Sometimes we need an outside reminder that we are better than we think we are.
Personally, I'm dedicating myself to breaking my imposter syndrome. I'm working on taking a seat at the table (another of Sandberg's vital maxims for women in leadership).
I ask, I beg, I demand that you consume media consciously. Consume critically. Men and women, ask yourself: Would I think the same if gender was reversed? Would I find this joke funny? Would this ad be as effective if the female was more fully dressed? Whose perspectives are framing this story?
Spend your money on what aligns with your values, with the person you want to be—or, better yet, the people you want your daughters and sons to grow up to be. When you watch a TV show, buy a magazine, rent a film or click on a webpage, you are voting with your money. Even with free content, you are paying with your attention, usually through advertising. Choose not to put money in the pockets of those who degrade women, who make it that much harder for us to assume the leadership I know we are capable of. If women don't stand up for each other, who will?