I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

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Moving on and letting go

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference at Warwick University. It was generally good fun; I met lots of new people, I got drunk in the Warwick students’ union, I ate some great food and I got to feel like a proper grownup with an (admittedly small) expenses account. I was there for the induction to the graduate scheme I’m on, so it was mostly introductions and admin. Some of it was useful. Some of it, to be brutally honest, felt like a waste of time. But there was one talk that really, really struck a chord with me. The speaker was telling us about opening a new chapter in our lives. His basic premise was that you can love what you’re doing, you can be having the time of your life, but you can still miss what you’ve lost. You can live in the moment, you can love your moment, and yet you can still mourn what you’ve left behind.

I’m enjoying my life. I live in a beautiful part of London. I see my boyfriend regularly, and I’ve met up with old friends from Cambridge since being here. I’ve joined a new rowing club, and I’m already a cox for the top women’s squad. My work is interesting and varied, and I have colleagues who are helpful and friendly. I’ve started to make friends, some of whom I’ve trusted enough to confide my mental health struggles to. I still exercise here, and I love to run alongside the river, just as I did in Cambridge. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Cambridge was, is, still is, the love of my life. I come from a small town. I grew up, with friends, but always feeling on the edge, never feeling accepted. I was bullied and lonely in that small town. The scars littering my body can attest to that. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that university was like Hogwarts for smart people. I clung to that. I clung to the idea that I could escape my conservative hometown, I could find somewhere where I would be happy and safe, and I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. I never imagined something as good as Cambridge.

It had its flaws; I’m not going to deny that. But to me, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home. The cobbled streets felt like a dream, something I had imagined and woke to find was real. The towering spires of the colleges welcomed me, even as they intimidated me. I walked across the courts of St John’s, and felt, deeply, a sense of belonging. Over the vacations, I ached for those strong walls. I was homesick for the swooping arches, the regimented grass, the uneven wooden stairs of third court and the painted roses of second court. I longed for the beauty and the warmth and the comfort.

I built a life for myself. I met my boyfriend there, and some of my happiest memories with him take place within Cambridge. Running to his college in the rain, throwing paint at each other in Lent term, study breaks in the middle of exam term, late nights huddled under sheets. I met some of my closest friends there. I met my housemates from the last year, who are funny and smart and gorgeous. I miss them more than they can know. I miss coming home to them, the kitchen windows steamed up and every available chair crowded with friends and strangers alike. There was always someone new to meet, something new to do. But, at the end of the night, there were always people to sit quietly with, friends to hold your hand and tell you it would be ok. I miss that.

I see Cambridge everywhere I go. I see the college in the beauty of the council chamber. I see the river when I walk into town. But it is a pale imitation. The council cannot match the splendour of John’s. The river is so wide, bereft of the swoops and curves that taught me how to cox. I see the red oars of Kingston, and I feel longing for the red oars of Maggie. I see my boyfriend, at the weekends; when my work and his hospital rounds allow it. No more running to Fitz in the middle of the night, desperate to see him, thinking 15 minutes was too long to go before I could be with him. Now, it’s an hour and a half across London to be in his arms. Friends are scattered across the country; even some of the ones in London feel as thought they could be a thousand miles away. I saw two of my housemates last week, and I almost cried when I met them at Waterloo station. They felt like home.

This makes it sound like all I do is miss Cambridge, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Kingston is amazing. I love so much about it, and I’m doing so many amazing things that I never imagined when I was still a student. Every time I think about Cambridge, I try and remember that lecture at Warwick. I can be happy here, I can build a new life and live it to the full; but I can still look back and mourn.

Graduate job hunting

From the second year of university onwards, family gatherings become increasingly stressful. This is primarily because it is the time when relatives start to ask you “so what are you going to do with your life? Do you have an internship sorted? What are your plans for when you graduate?” Over the Christmas break, my grandmother and I had this conversation multiple times, which always went the same way:

Grandma: “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” 

Me: “I’m not sure yet…”

Grandma: “Hahaha, very funny… what are you really going to do?”

Me: “…”

For some people, they know what they want to do when they graduate. For those doing degrees in medicine or similar subjects, the career path is at least partially decided. For those of us doing an arts degree, there isn’t really an obvious career path. People say “you could do anything!” But that is precisely the problem: I could do anything, and I have no idea where to even start looking.

I didn’t get an internship last year. This was mainly because most of the companies I applied to either rejected to me or ignored me. It was also because I fundamentally disagree with unpaid internships. I believe that they are un-meritocratic, giving opportunities predominantly to young people with wealthy parents. I have spent every holiday since I started Cambridge working two jobs; the money I earn goes directly to buying food and paying rent during term time. My parents could probably support me through an unpaid internship: but it would entail hardship and sacrifice on their part, something that I am reluctant to ask of them.

So, I went into applying for jobs without an internship, but with years of work experience, extra-curriculars, good grades, and a degree from Cambridge. Finding a job should be doable, right?

Wrong: graduate scheme after graduate scheme rejected me, most of them at the first hurdle. For some, I went through to the interview stage. Some of these went well; some went badly. Favourite questions I was asked include “when were you last drunk?”, “tell us about a recent mistake?” and “how will you revolutionise our company?” (The previous Saturday; I panicked and said “I don’t make mistakes” – I don’t think he was impressed; I have literally not even left university yet, cut a woman some slack.)

Along the way, I have navigated the bizarre rules that govern interview conduct: heels, but not too high, a dress, but not too revealing, makeup, but not too heavy. The words “networking lunch” appearing in emails has filled me with dread; I either want to stuff my face with food, or make small talk. Doing both at the same time is not my idea of fun.

In amongst this, there have been highlights. I have learned that I can, in fact, run rather fast in heels; as evidenced by the time my train was late and I sprinted past the houses of parliament to make it to my interview in time, desperately hoping that no one would mistake me for a security threat. I have learned that I am very good at directing a team to make paper handbags, and then taking charge of selling them to an imaginary vendor. I have learned how the buses run in Cambridge (in practise, not just how to get from a to b). I have learned that I can sit in a room of men (all trying to be the “alpha” of the group) and face them down. I feel like when I walk into interviews now, I stand taller, I talk more confidently. It has forced me to think about myself in a way that I haven’t had to do before: my strengths and my weaknesses. Someone is (hopefully) going to pay me enough to live on: I need to think what I can bring to an organisation to warrant that.

Today, I had my final interview for a grad scheme I am through to the final stage of. It was unlike any interview I had ever had. It was with the head of the organisation. He asked me what my personal values were. We debated the merits of different forms of equality. He asked me if Simone de Beauvoir was a hypocrite. We talked about my personal role models, what kind of leader I want to be, whose leadership I admire (my current female rowing captains.)

It was interesting, and intellectually stimulating, and it made me think. The office is based somewhere I want to live, with a river nearby where I can continue to cox. I want this job desperately. For the first time, I can see myself not as a student, but as a businesswoman. It’s a strange realisation, because I have been terrified of leaving Cambridge for so long. But I realise now that there is a whole world outside of the bubble. I have been happy here, and I will be happy in the future. Either way, I will be happy when I land a job and have to stop applying for graduate jobs.