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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

It’s not burnout or low confidence, it’s moral injury – why women don’t need fixing

OK, so I’ve noticed Wise Wednesdays has been getting longer and it may be a signal to put some of this writing momentum into the book again. So, assuming I stick to it, you should be seeing a shorter WW next week and this may be the final longer version for the time being.

Yesterday, I was at an informal meeting of Global Health Women organised by a colleague who leads on public health at Doctors Without Borders. Everyone present had worked in some of the most challenging emergency situations in countries including Sierra Leone, South Sudan, DRC many had worked to contain Ebola.

These are women who don’t fear much when it comes to helping the most vulnerable and averting global catastrophes.

And yet…many also shared that it can be a struggle getting their voice heard or influencing their organisations, EVEN when they’re at the table of power.

So what’s going on?

“It’s about having a voice at the table, not just a seat.” - Natalie Wharton, Wharton Business Consulting.

We talk about women “building their confidence” and “developing their leadership skills”, and sure enough many professional women internalise the message and scrutinise their “low confidence” and “lack of leadership skills”.

Having pondered this issue at some length as well as worked alongside and coached a good number of extraordinary women, I have to say I don’t agree. Not 100%.

Women know how to get things done

When given a chance (e.g. during war time when men are away at the battle front) women have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of leading and running the show. But when peace returns, they seem to get a suboptimal deal and are relegated back to second fiddle, for no other reason than the men being back.

So rather than focusing on fixing women, how do things look when we put the system under scrutiny instead?

[See the short video below the email or read on.]

This video by a doctor making the case against the concept of “burnout” puts it in no uncertain terms – the system is the problem.

Dynamic, intelligent, mission-driven individuals will burnout in a system that causes them repeated moral injury where they have to compromise important values of empathy, listening and collaborativeness.

Having written about toxic work cultures in the past (e.g. Toxic Workplaces are Feeding Imposter Phenomenon – Here’s Why in The Conversation; and last week’s Wise Wednesdays on The Truth about Turning Your Weaknesses into Strengths) – I resonated with his articulation of the problem. It echoed Paul Farmer’s concept of Structural Violence.

Now, I’ve spent a large part of my career understanding the tension between individual agency and structures of power, and I know the answer is complex. The problem is multifactorial. It’s about co-emergence and complexity, etc.

And as a thinking woman, I have to question the “fixing women” narrative. Is this simply the same old narrative of women not being up to the task in disguise? A wolf of an argument in sheep’s clothing? What about men?

(Interestingly, the increase in Men’s Work – men only therapeutic and coaching groups - seems to be providing some answers and creating a more complete narrative.)

The view from the top of the mountain

Based on recent conversations, I wondered if a generational divide may exist on this.

For example:

Devika Wood - a Forbes 30 under 30 has a mission to provide affordable social care. She’s pitched 300+ times to (all but two male) investors. No one could dispute her resilience. She’s even been recognised by the UN as a female innovator (you may have seen her face in Times Square or the London Underground on International Women’s Day).

But is this resilience necessary? Do women need to feel under threat whenever they step outside traditional female roles and internalise the need to prove themselves? Isn’t this fixing-the female-flaw narrative a form of moral injury?

Younger women certainly feel that they need to prove themselves even when their achievements outweigh those of their male counterparts. They feel the double-burden of having to be as good as or better than men while not ruffling feathers.

They put their smallest actions under severe scrutiny – as though they were trying to scan and correct for the slightest flaws within themselves.

In contrast, formidable, older pioneers at the top of the power mountain like Christine Lagarde (only the first female IMF Director since it was founded in 1945) and Dame Fiona Woolf (only the second female Lord Mayor of London since its inception in 1189) who I’ve heard speak recently, emphasise systemic problems.

In their remarks, they’ve highlighted the need to continue improving the issues with underlying values and incentive structures of our troubled economic and financial systems…

So what’s a girl to do?

Walking at the evolutionary edge

“Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.” – Steve Jobs.

Change is inevitable. But it’s rarely linear.

Both women and men are still finding their feet in the post-feminism era and will have to learn to relate to each other in new ways.

New archetypes for what it looks like to be a leader or successful will outgrow the Great Man model of leadership, the materialist profit-only motive, and the primitive dog-eat-dog mentality that characterise toxic work cultures.

We’re in transition and need to use a hybrid approach and creative solutions. Nathalie Wharton did just that and set up her own consulting company based on the Results-Only Work Environment principle (as long as you deliver, you can work where and when you see fit). She’s attracted 65 women associates from diverse nationalities - all from the Big 4.

She’s leading with the expected confidence AND sowing the seeds of a new, more humane work system, simultaneously. Knowing your values and having the courage of your convictions will guide you if you are walking at the edge and venturing into uncharted waters.

Legend in the making: Prof S has just completed a coaching process with me this week having transformed a prestigious role into an even more prestigious one that works for her – congratulations! Within a few months she went from feeling harassed and unappreciated in a male dominated university hospital to becoming an endowed chair in a world class, top US centre in her speciality. Now she can focus on her incredible work with children who have cancer, unencumbered by a toxic work culture. While navigating the transition was delicate, she was very clear on what she would and wouldn’t tolerate and knew her value. Sometimes you may have to work on your resilience, and sometimes it’s not you, it’s them.

In summary, of course, being unapologetically assertive and single-mindedly ambitious gives you an edge in a competitive work culture. But perhaps it's not women who need "fixing" but the system that's broken.

In a collaborative work environment based on cultural and creative sensitivity, to innovate and solve the complex problems we face in the 21st century with refined intuition and depth of understanding, the feminine principle could thrive naturally, free of moral injury. It's those with a ruthlessly competitive and driven streak who would need "fixing". In the words of Mme Lagarde: values of kindness, dignity and honesty are what’s needed, now.

Have a great week,


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