In its Global Gender Gap Report 2022, the World Economic Forum states that it will take another 132 years before gender pay parity is achieved globally at the current rate of progress. This is the context within which women seek to build their careers and businesses, and for many these challenging professional demands are compounded by expectations at home.
In this episode of WiFB, Naomi George, founder of Optimum, which equips people with the positive mindset and enhanced wellbeing that enables them to thrive, discusses unrealistic expectations and how to manage them. She speaks from experience, offering advice to those who feel they don’t have enough energy or time to accomplish what they think they need to and how to deal with their guilt when they ‘fall short’.
- Expectation has to be viewed in the context of acceptance, approval, and belonging. Women have historically been denied these and have had to fight to be seen. As a result, many women in business have developed a ‘fighter’s mentality’ to get to where they are and stay there, which isn’t always beneficial. Instead, women must be invited to the table and own the sense that they belong there – a pathway to a more confident mindset.
- Recognise a potentially misleading inner voice. No one can be everything to everyone all the time. Mistakes do not equal failure, and results can be achieved without striving for perfection. Be prepared not to achieve perfection every time, and practice self-compassion to turn down the inner critic.
- Change the narrative by speaking up. When women share their stories of vulnerability, not getting things right the first time, and ‘falling short’, they give other women a sense of permission to acknowledge and share similar experiences. It also encourages the mindset that it is acceptable, justifiable, and normal to do your best but not achieve perfection every time.
- Don’t push yourself too much. It’s not all about ‘winning’ and ‘succeeding’; the journey is about personal and professional growth, which will naturally involve setbacks. Changing your mindset from success-driven to growth-driven allows a natural progression and minimises the risk of burnout.
R: Welcome everyone to the conversation on Women in Family Business. My name is Ramia El Agamy and I’m your host. Today I am joined by the lovely Naomi George all the way from India. Hi Naomi. Welcome.
N: Hello Ramia. Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.
R: Do you have an explanation as to why we even in the first place set ourselves up for this overachiever kind of lifestyle? What traps us into that kind of modus operandi in your opinion?
N: I think it’s a great question, Ramia, and I want to start with expectation, isolate expectation in the context of women because expectation means two things. It’s about approval, acceptance, and one more key term, belonging. I want to talk about these three with regard to expectation. Given our historical fabric, we traditionally had to struggle and to fight for every right that women have been given, women’s liberation, suffrage rights onwards, and that fight continues today, reference to Roe v. Wade. We still do not have rights over our reproductive selves.
When you come from this kind of background where we’ve had to fight for every right and that right continues and we continue to fight, where we have been told what sort of personalities to have, which is all about kindness and giving and nurturing, where we are clearly defined in terms of the spaces that we need to function in, which is the domestic space, everything about a woman has been traditionally and historically in society really geared towards the other. Every time we wanted to break out of these confines, it’s been a struggle and it’s an ongoing fight. The World Economic Forum, for instance, has released a post-pandemic report that says it will take another 132 years before gender pay parity is achieved. This is the context within which we function.
When we come into other arenas of work, of family business, of government, of corporate, it’s a fight to have gotten there where we are getting in from this perspective of we’re giving you this place. Society, patriarchy is giving us this place or we’re taking the place, we’re grabbing the place. We’ve had to. When you are given something, there’s a dotted line which means we are giving you this, which means that you will fulfill expectations. Because our own conditioning is so deep, we also come in with the fact that we have to fulfill these expectations to be accepted because we’re not accepted in these places, organically speaking, in business, in government, in policy, where the power is. Women have had to fight to be seen. We will meet the expectations for acceptance. We will meet the expectations because culturally we’re conditioned to people please, we are conditioned to take care, to nurture, to serve the other. That conditioning runs in us as well. The people pleasing, the need for approval also runs. It’s a core psychological aspect to this.
The third thing is, when you have to fight for something or you take something, the first thing you want to do is safeguard it. You want to consolidate it because you are always vulnerable. Women function from a vulnerability. Then you want to strengthen it. You want to keep it and you can only keep it by strengthening it, which is where we go over and above to achieve, to prove to everybody and to ourselves that we deserve it. When we overachieve, we’re saying we deserve this, I deserve to be on the board of directors.
R: My big question to you is, can we afford to go into this without having a fighter’s mentality, or will it actually be taken away from us the moment we let go of that mindset?
N: We can’t afford to. We just can’t because everything that is given can also be taken. I think Roe v. Wade is a classic example. I think what is happening to Sanna Marin just because she partied is a classic example of the fact that women’s development, women’s success is under the gaze of male scrutiny. When I say male scrutiny, again, it’s all power layered. You use the word trap and led. We function under the gaze of societal scrutiny. Sanna Marin is a great PM. She’s the youngest PM and she wrote in her response… She was hammered for partying and she had to apologize. The thing is, she hasn’t missed a day of work. She hasn’t missed a day of work since she took over. She parties and she gets hammered and she has to issue an apology.
What I’m trying to say is we can’t… Of course, we are going to have to fight because it can all go away. It is constantly questioned. So we need to come in strong. We can’t get complacent as yet. The stats said 132 years before we achieve gender pay parity. That means it’s an unequal system, so you have to prove yourself constantly. The expectations are very much part of our DNA. Meeting and exceeding them has unfortunately become just the way things are because somewhere that whole deservability… I spoke about belonging. When somebody says to you either we take a place at the table or we’re given a place at the table because we fought so hard for it, there’s a bit of a fighter mentality that we bring in with us because now we got to keep this. Now we got to consolidate this. We can’t let this go. But how about if it was said, “I invite you to the table because you belong here. This is your table as much as my table. You belong here”? You come in with so much more grace. The anxiety, the thing of constantly looking over your back is a whole lot more less because you belong. That’s why I said expectation has to be viewed in the context of acceptance, approval, belonging. We’ve historically been denied this, Ramia, so we cannot afford to not fight in many instances.
R: If these expectations are not going to go away for the next 130 years, I’m just taking this number now as a hook here for us to refer to, if this is still going to be like this and we have to prepare the next two or three generations for the fact that they might face some extent of this in their lives as women, how do we cope with this in a healthy fashion? How does this not make us sick physically, mentally? And how does this not discourage us, I would say, from still going after the things that we want and the things that we quite frankly and blatantly equally deserve?
N: This is it. This is the million-dollar question. One is we expect that we are all performing to expectation, proving our worth, proving our place, our deservability from a women in family business role, that the seat on the board has been given to us because I deserve it and not because I’m the daughter of somebody else. This is whether you are a man, woman, wherever you fall on the spectrum. This is the malaise of all family businesses. Everybody wants to prove, so we accept this about ourselves. There is an inherent… It’s coded into our DNA now. Expectations, accomplishments, proving ourselves, all of that.
But I think where we need to really… Is change the inner voice, which is stop… Yes, perform, yes, aspire to achieve and to success, but do not base everything on the result which is perfection oriented, which does not allow for mistakes. So set your sites, but let’s say that we go away from the results-oriented journey and we look at the journey that’s about growth, self-discovery, and learning at our own pace to some extent. Because we have to incorporate the fact that we’re also women, we’re raising families, we’ve got responsibilities. It’s this constant dance, so we just have to be prepared to not do it all perfectly. You’ll have a great week at work and a not-so-great week at home and it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at home. It just means it’s a bad week. Be compassionate.
R: When I am confronted with that week that you described and I have had an incredible week at work and I’ve done extremely well, but I’ve not spent enough time with my family, I’ve not done a lot of the things that are expected of me, I might not have looked my best either on that week because I was so focused on work, for instance, when that guilt hits, maybe it’s triggered by a remark from someone or it’s triggered by someone trying to shame me, what do I do when that emotion hits? What’s the coping mechanism there that you suggest?
N: Number one, we cannot be everything to everyone at the same time. We stop this. This is why a podcast like this, work that you do is so imperative. We just can’t and we have to stop because what happens is that when we fought for our place at work, we never gave up our place at home. You’re fighting for your crown at work. When you leave work, then you’re fighting to retain the crown of mother and wife at home and they all have to be crowns and perfect crowns. That cannot happen. We cannot be everything to everyone. We have to go in for the fact that one part of ourselves will diminish if another part of ourselves is taking center stage. If this week is going to be big at work, that means my children will really only see me at bedtime for 35 minutes and that’s the best I can do. I cannot be the perfect mother. We have to absolve ourselves with that and we have to be compassionate towards ourselves. You give the 35 minutes and make it count, and then you take your Sunday and make that count and that’s it. Because if we try to be everything to everyone where you’re spending three hours of time with them when actually you don’t have the energy to do that, you can’t. You’re failing them and you’re failing yourself.
Again, we need women like this, women at the top to speak because I listened to Meghan Markle’s very good podcast on female archetypes. She was interviewing Serena Williams. Serena Williams was talking about herself exactly this question that you’re asking, the inherent guilt that we carry as women. Because we’re constantly striving to be everything to everyone. This is the match, the French Open. The day before her finals, her daughter, toddler, Olympia, is on her watch and her daughter falls out of her high chair and has to be taken to hospital and she dies. As a mother, it’s guilt. How could this have happened on my watch? She just turned away for a second. Of course, it happens. The next day she goes out. She hasn’t slept all night because she’s been taking the kid to the hospital and back and all of that and she wins her match. Now she’s won her match and she’s failed as a mother. She’s fallen short. Her daughter fell out of the high chair on her watch. This is the duality of women. We win on one front. You cannot win another front. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her daughter any less. I can tell you as a mother of two children that my children have fallen on my watch more than once — bad falls. I can tell you from my mother that I fell on her watch.
R: How do you see the evolution also in the time that you’ve been active? Is it becoming better with all the content that’s out there or is it worse?
N: No, no. It’s becoming better. We must talk about this. I deal with guilt every day. Every day I’m failing someone. I cannot fully do everyone at the same time. It’s not possible. I have two children and I’m co-parenting. At some level, I’m failing them because I’m not providing them with this perfect family. We are constantly engaged in this tussle between being true to ourselves between what we want to do and wish to do for ourselves and the roles that we play in other people’s lives and there’s a lot of judgment. Finally, it comes down to… The coping mechanism for guilt is to lessen the judgment. We judge ourselves. Forget about other people. Everybody is judging themselves. Serena Williams is judging herself and I’m judging myself. You are. Meghan Markle is. Good God. So let’s be compassionate and say, “Today this is all I can give, but I’ll come back to it on the weekend or whatever.”
We have to be compassionate towards ourselves. We have to lower the inner critic. There’s a whole movement towards nurturing the compassionate inner voice. If I said to you my kid fell out of a high chair and I’m such a loser as a mother; how could this happen to me,” what would you say to me? Would you berate me or would you say, ‘Look, it happens”? That’s the compassionate inner voice. There’s a whole movement towards raising the compassionate inner voice. We have to do it very consciously. We have to understand when we criticize ourselves we’re making ourselves small and it achieves nothing. We have to let go of the fact that we can be everything to everyone because we also live for ourselves. We do our best. We stop being perfect. We stop striving for perfection. It’s a constant dance and that’s it.
Women have to speak. We must speak because when we share stories of vulnerability and falling short and not getting things right, this is a journey. We give permission for other women to do the same. We give permission to each other and that is so powerful because we are changing the narrative from women who only modeled giving all of themselves to the family, to their work at the cost of themselves, that’s all we ever saw, to now women who are saying, “Hey, let’s do our best. We’re not going to get everything right.” We’re not. I can tell you we’re not going to get… We shouldn’t even be striving for that. Let’s put a structure in place. Let’s function the best as we can. Let’s make some room for joy and rest in there. I’m not going to be able to tick every box. I don’t choose to tick every box. Today work is important. Today the school is important. I’m going to have to dance between that and that’s the best I can do. Practice inner self-compassion, be kind to ourselves.
R: I think these stories that women share help everybody because I think it normalizes that vulnerability, it normalizes speaking of failures and mistakes at a personal level. This is really not just a conversation that belongs into one gender category or even one economic strata. This is really something that goes across the board in every direction.
N: Men are as capable of nature as women are. The feminine and the masculine energy runs in all of us and expectations are crippling to them as well as they are to us.
R: Women do not necessarily have a higher emotional intelligence than men and putting that additional burden on us makes so many women be so quiet because it’s already putting another barrier to entry towards sharing our stories or talking about our mistakes.
N: If somebody else’s emotional intelligence is just not how they’re wired, then so be it. Let’s just take everybody as they are. But you’re right. It cannot be thrust upon anyone. I think let’s pry open these labels, emotional intelligence, empathy, sensitivity as belonging to the woman and then at the same level it doesn’t belong to men and they’re only supposed to be analytical and decisive. What rubbish? Every quality belongs to everybody or doesn’t belong to everybody and that’s it and somewhere we just got to dig open these water-tight compartments that we’re pushed into and just free ourselves from that.
R: What frustrates me about that conversation, Naomi, is what we ultimately do is we still have expectations towards ourselves that we then would not have towards others. I think that this is the greatest contradiction of all.
I see this behavior leading to burnouts. When you’ve arrived at that stage where a lot of people are, what are the first steps maybe mentally but also in terms of actions that you can take to move yourself back into a healthier frame of mind in your view?
N: You have to recognize that your act burnout, which is when you’re at a place where there’s complete depletion of energy. Because you’re talking about the pandemic, again, there’s been studies and of course, WHO has recognized burnout as a disease. They also say it’s a complete depletion of energy. What that complete depletion means is it manifests. You have to recognize how it manifests. Your body and your mind are telling you something. It tells you via irritation. The irritation goes up. You start snapping and snarling. You’re anxious. We are not able to love very well. Love takes energy. We can’t parent. We can’t partner. We can barely be a good friend to anybody else, forget about ourselves. That goes. Along with that comes the guilt. “Oh my God. I actually don’t feel like being near my children or I don’t feel like spending time with my partner.”
Along with that, when it comes to business, it affects professional efficacy. Again, WHO says burnout affects professional efficacy, which means that we begin to doubt our physicians. If you are a leader, you got to take a decision. Now, whether it’s a right decision or wrong decision, forget about it. But there has to be coherence. There’s to be a clear thinking process. Our thoughts and our brains get modeled up when we have burnout. We begin to doubt our decision-making ability and that’s where productivity is affected. Basically, burnout means recognition. It’s not just I who I’m burned out. It is translating into everything around me, my work, my relationships, my health, and so, stop. It means you got to stop.
You have to stop and you got to go to the three R’s, which is rest, sleep and nutrition, rejuvenate, and replenish. Rest, replenish, actually, because your energy depletion, rest, replenish. Where are those places that you can go to which fill you up? Everything that we can do, hobbies, games, play, whatever, holiday, whatever that can replenish us, fill us up. That’s where rejuvenation happens because that’s the new energy that’s coming in. That’s fresh energy.
R: If you go from that angle and in your experience, how can I formulate healthy expectations that give me a sense of success and achievement at the end of the day or at the end of the week, or at the end of the month, basically, maybe across the board? What would that look like in your view?
N: Well, I’m a mindset mentor. The thing is everything starts from the mind. We have to change… My whole thing, philosophy on which the company is based, on which I live my life and all of that is think, do, be. If we don’t change it here, it ain’t going to translate. So we have to start from the fact that we will incorporate a compassionate inner voice with regard to this ambition and big results-oriented mindset. We have to make a conscious decision. We shift the focus from the results to the journey and say every day that we strive, it’s going to be about growth, which will involve failure and falling short, but it’s about the effort. You just stay on course and we be compassionate to ourselves. Take a little bit of time to replenish ourselves. Understand that we may not perform excellently every day, but the next day we have enough in ourselves to come back and do it again.
You have to change your mindset from success-driven and success defined to a growth mindset. This is about me. This is my journey. It is about my self-discovery, learning, and growth, and growth never stops. Results cage you. If you fail to get that big fat client in or you fail to win the match or you fail to have this great business meeting or whatever standard you’re holding up to, does that mean you are nothing? Does that mean you don’t deserve to be at the table? Or does it mean that we reexamine why we failed and come back in there tomorrow and try again with our learnings? It’s a mindset. It’s a growth mindset with a compassionate inner voice and it allows… At the core of it is this is my journey; what do I need to thrive and do my best and permission to fail?
R: You heard it here, everyone. The results will cage you, the journey will set you free, this great episode with Naomi George. Naomi, thank you so much for joining us on the conversation on Women in Family Business.
N: Thank you. I enjoyed it Ramia. Thank you so much.