Recently, I surveyed about 200 women at various points in their personal and professional lives. I asked them two simple questions: “What would you do, who would you be, if you knew you would succeed?” And “What is holding you back from pursuing that goal?”
Despite their differences in location or vocation, the answers were strikingly similar. Women would pursue a new or more fulfilling career; live life on their own terms without worrying about what others think; leave a toxic environment; find love; commit to a healthier mind and body; shine in their space. And the obstacles women identified as stopping them from pursuing their goal included a combination of imposter syndrome (fear of not being good enough); fear of what others would think of them; fear of failure; fear of letting others down; not knowing where to start; lack of finances; and lack of energy and time due to everyday responsibilities.
Some stated that it was perhaps too late for them.
I had created the survey with my own long-held passion in mind: the empowerment of women. My experience in empowerment is informed by my 15-plus years’ experience as an educator and in my leadership and initiatives in mentoring girls and women. It also is informed by a lifetime of experience of being female across three cultures and continents. My definition of an empowered woman encompasses the following: feeling authentic in being alive without needing or seeking external validation; having the tools to effectively deal with the circumstances life throws your way; having the time and energy for activities that fuel your aspirations; not being diminished by feelings of inadequacies; and not being discouraged to extinction by failures.
The foundation of the survey stems to when I was a naive and inexperienced 20-something in New York City. I had keenly observed various women, hoping to be inspired and perhaps empowered by association. During that time, I came across many women at various stages; empowered women whose successes were second to their authenticity and self-assurance; warm-hearted, fun-loving women living the big-city life; women with cool facades that hid crippling insecurities; single moms who were hustling to give their kids the best possible lives; women in search of love; women who carried the burden of busyness as a measure of success; and women whose meaningful accomplishments and contributions went unnoticed.
One of the most empowered women I met had a lasting effect on my impressionable mind. She was the epitome of grace and confidence. Her demeanor was warm and congenial, but she deliberately kept her distance from certain people, too. I also noticed that, unlike others in the office, she always left on time each evening to have dinner with her family. And she never apologized for her priorities. She looked out for me, encouraged me to pursue my graduate degrees and showed me firsthand that empowered women inspire empowerment in others.
Thus, inspired by this empowered woman, I embarked on an eight-year period of a steep incline in life lessons. Almost every single day I asked of myself: “Where am I going in life? Will I succeed? What will I do if I fail? What will my dad think if I fail? What do I do next? Will I ever know enough?”
I began to learn the answers to my pending questions as I stumbled and learned to keep moving. And I felt accomplished when, at the age of 29, I had successfully earned a Master of Business Administration and a doctoral degree, while also helping my younger brother through college.
But on my 30th birthday, my dad said to me, “By the time I was your age, I was already married, with kids and a house. Some 30-year-olds are millionaires. What do you have to show for yourself?”
It was a life-defining moment; I knew that I could either be felled by the stinging blow or allow it to catapult me to where I needed to go next. I wish I could scoop into that moment and tell my younger self, “Hey girl, you don’t need anyone to validate your accomplishments. You are the power player in your own life. You know enough to make the next move. This feels like a shattering failure, but it is breaking you free.”
But I have no access to time travel and instead these are conversations I have had with students, with girls and women in my sphere. A primary objective of the survey was to use it to develop a freely available and structured “empowering starter kit” to address the common and sustained bottlenecks women face in pursuing goals, including the question of where to start.
This starter kit distills and outlines five simple but effective steps women can take right now to empower themselves and make the leap toward their goal.
The five steps can be remembered by the acronym A+SELF.
A+: Authenticity means not needing or seeking external approval (including from people you love and the people you do not like).
S: Reframing the problem into a solvable form and placing yourself as a power player in the solution.
E: Removing the energy-eaters from your sphere so that you have the energy to fuel your passion and goals.
L: Leverage what you have and what you know right now (this helps to fight imposter syndrome).
F: Use “failures” as a necessary catapult toward your goal.
What I know for sure is that a most powerful force in the world is empowered women, who inspire empowerment in others.
Years later, my dad and I did make peace. A byproduct of empowerment is freedom from webs cast by the past.
Nazli W. Hardy is an associate professor of computer science and chair of the Women in Mathematics, Science & Technology Conference at Millersville University, and founder of Women Empowered! Instagram: @Nazlinspired.