This article was written on International Women’s Day on a flight from Indianapolis to Madrid.
Today is International Women’s Day and I find myself feeling proud and humbled as a woman traveling the final stretch of a long road to my first graduate degree. Friday the 13th (hopefully not an omen) is the day of the ceremony where I will receive a degree stating that I am a Master of Business Administration – whatever that means.
Before I started this degree I wondered if I was making the worst decision of my life. I questioned whether I would drown in feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, if I would be able to manage work and life while studying, and if I was overestimating my abilities. Why did I want to study business in the first place? Aside from my terrible grades in high school and as an undergrad, I am not a typical businesswoman. I am an artsy girl who likes to read. I am great with kids and creativity. I spent the mid-2000s cleaning houses to make a living and only co-founded a consulting company in 2008 because I was surrounded by people who believed in me more than I believed in myself.
I know now that their belief in me was well founded. It’s true; I do have something to offer. But that was true long before I started business school, which didn’t give me anything I didn’t already have except, I suppose, a belief in myself. And that’s the part that disappoints me …
As a product of middle class America, I measure my value based on what I have been taught. Do I have the degrees that prove my words carry weight? Have I earned the right to your respect?
At Realized Worth, a fundamental part of our work involves designing corporate volunteer programs that double as self-perpetuating leadership development systems. What that means is that the design of each program is unique to the company it lives within, but the framework is consistent. It takes into account the natural behaviors and motivations of human beings and allows what’s already working to be even more effective.
But here’s the thing: that self-perpetuating leadership development system is not just governance or the delegation of responsibility; rather, it is a movement from transactional volunteering to transformational volunteering. Our aim is to take as many employee volunteers as possible along a continuum that gives them the opportunity to be changed by the experience of volunteering. The psychological effects of this process on individuals can make it possible to address major societal issues in ways that currently take place only on a very small scale.
If I can summarize that psychological effect into one concept, it is equality. And perhaps taking it one step further, it is a concept of value. As a product of middle class America, I measure my value based on what I have been taught: lessons that ask questions about where I’m from, what I drive, what I do, how much I know, and so on. Am I young enough, old enough, fit enough, humble enough, assertive enough to deserve your attention? Do I have the degrees that prove my words carry weight? Have I earned the right to your respect?
When we enter spaces outside our comfort zones where men and women live in the margins of society, we are faced with a cognitive dissonance … that can empower us to see that the person we are “helping” as no different than ourselves.
Like you, I know that these are not true measures of value. And like you, I am still knocked over by them on a regular basis. But there is one place, one consistent experience, where I find myself gently eased into a clear and calming reminder of my own intrinsic value as a human being, and more specifically, as a woman. It is the only experience I know where this reminder finds its way to everyone who is ready for it – and it happens again and again, without reserve. It is, of course, the experience of volunteering. When we enter spaces outside our comfort zones, whether at an animal shelter, disaster zone, environmental cleanup, or in my case where men and women live in the margins of society, we are faced with a cognitive dissonance. If we are ready – when the circumstances in our lives and the openness of our hearts allow it – that dissonance can empower us to see that the person or people we are “helping” as no different than ourselves. We are equal in value, separated only by upbringing, economic status, or maybe a series of unfortunate choices. When that moment happens to us, we remember our value – a value that cannot be earned or taken from us.
I can only hope that on Friday the 13th, when I am handed a piece of paper that says I am more valuable today than I was yesterday, I will hold it lightly and refuse to display it as a label that demands deference. I hope that I will not separate myself from those affected by inequality, but I will intentionally put myself in situations that teach me we are all the same. I hope that I will use the privilege afforded me to fight the accepted objectification of marginalized people; educate against a deeply held belief that it is “us and them,” and refuse the temptation to believe that my education makes me worth more than I was before.