Years ago, during a therapy session about my struggle to move past trauma resulting from a long-term emotionally abusive relationship, my therapist said something that stopped me in my tracks: Letting go can be hard because trauma lives in our cells. Over the past several years, I have thought repeatedly about how for women, trauma related to patriarchal norms and gender bias lives in the cells and impacts everything from behavior to bank accounts.
New qualitative research from Girls Leadership (one of my consulting clients) solidifies that this trauma starts early. “Girls experience harmful gender norms that don’t align with how they see themselves,” says Kendra Carr, chief program officer. “They see themselves as powerful and creative, yet gender norms put them in a box where they can’t be their full selves.”
The effect persists from girlhood to womanhood. Recently, AARP Disrupt Aging hired me for a social media campaign to spark conversations about equity, money, and work. I asked my 18,000 Instagram followers via an Instagram Stories poll whether they’d ever struggled to ask for a raise or compensation for a job or project. When 95 percent of those who responded said yes, I wasn’t surprised. I also asked my followers why they think women struggle to ask for what they’re worth. I suggested factors such as age, confidence, fear of scarcity, and not knowing market rates, and asked people to share other pain points. Women had a lot to say about gender bias.
“We are taught by gender norms to be agreeable and compliant, and self-advocating is seen as too aggressive,” wrote one woman. Another pointed out that the lack of confidence women can feel is caused by “a system that makes us feel unworthy.” I received Instagram messages about gender bias across industries and how women who self-advocate face backlash and develop reputations as “difficult or demanding, never satisfied, not grateful for what you have, wanting more before you’ve ‘earned it’” compared with male peers. One woman wrote that one reason she hasn’t asked for a raise or promotion is because she had a baby — five years ago.
Kristina Tsipouras Miller, founder of the 33,000-member networking community Boston Business Women, says that struggles with confidence come up repeatedly in the community. “These struggles can stem from social conditioning; for example, how outspoken you were allowed to be or being taught that women should be a certain way.”
Women often feel siloed in their struggles. “This is a systemic problem,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, a colleague and friend who hosts Harvard Business Review’s The Anxious Achiever podcast. “Any feelings you have because you have been socialized as a woman to assume guilt and fault. . . you are not alone and it is not your fault.”
So how do women rise above gender norms to step into their power and ask for what they are worth? Self-reflection and awareness are key first steps. Carr recommends asking yourself what was expected of you when you were growing up, and being nonjudgmental about your experience and trauma.
When your confidence is shaky, seek help. “In anxious times we tend to double down on negative self-talk,” says Aarons-Mele. She recommends creating a “personal board of directors” to lean on. “Women need to objectively look at their strengths and weaknesses. Know what you are triggered by and what makes you feel vulnerable, and find support through a colleague or pay someone to help you.”
Role models and community are crucial. Tsipouras Miller studies mentors in her work life and role models from afar to learn what they have accomplished and how. Carr underscores the impact community has in fostering personal growth, especially for girls in all-girl spaces who are allowed to “explore all aspects of their identity, any interest they have,” she says. “They take more healthy risks, they suddenly see more opportunities for themselves, they persevere, they open themselves up to healthier relationships with peers, they feel safe.” Carr notes that such experiences can help reverse gender-bias trauma for girls.
Being authentic and vulnerable at work may seem counterintuitive, but it can be powerful. “The more authentic and real you can show up at a board meeting, your boss’s office, presenting to investors, or talking to customers, matters,” Tsipouras Miller says, because people want to do business with people they like, know, and trust.
Aarons-Mele advises against forgoing authenticity for a veneer of toughness during negotiations. “The key to successful negotiation and sales is having done your homework so you know objectively that the numbers you are asking for are fair. You need to be rooted in your values, know what you stand for, and why you are good at your job.” She recommends bringing talking points to negotiations if you’re concerned about your insecurities overtaking the moment.
One way to do that: Stack up work wins to bolster your confidence and serve as a salve on off days, Tsipouras Miller says. “Any time you are given a compliment, accomplish or produce something, solve a problem, or move the needle, add it to your personal portfolio.”
Ultimately, we need to be our best advocates. “Every raise or promotion I’ve ever received was because I went and ASKED for it,” messaged one of my Instagram followers. Tsipouras Miller often sees that women wait to be given permission, rather than granting it to themselves. It’s a big difference in how women and men approach opportunities, she notes. “You only get out of life what you have the courage to ask for. The more uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have, the more successful you’ll become,” Tsipouras Miller advises.
Patriarchal norms and gender bias are not going away any time soon, but women have the tools to step into their power and advocate for themselves. It’s time to acknowledge trauma, embrace authenticity, and cull our wins in service of self-advocacy — together.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director. Find her on social media at @drchristinekoh. Send comments to email@example.com.