Article by Alexa Greenwald
I have often felt self-conscious about my age at work. I started working at 21 in the kind of job I dreamed of landing after university.
I was the right-hand woman to a powerhouse director of an Austrian NGO working on the issue of youth radicalisation: the topic de jour in 2015-2016. My boss was a well-known feminist author and activist who had worked extensively with female victims of terrorism. Her focus was on the mothers of victims and perpetrators, yet when I met her, she was expanding her scope to reach the mothers of those falling prey to the ideology of ISIS. She was known, admired, and sometimes feared for her energy, bold ideas, and no-nonsense approach. My role was to be her extra set of eyes, ears, and hands. The task list is long, but it included brainstorming and then creating actions plans for many of her ideas; helping her write articles and journal publications; corresponding with her many A-list associates including politicians, diplomats, and global corporate elites like Sheryl Sandberg; and eventually giving speeches in her place when she had double-booked. Needless to say, for a 21, and later 22 and 23-year-old , this was deeply nerve-wracking. In the beginning, nearly every time I walked into a meeting or conference, I felt embarrassed, like my age was written in black sharpie across my forehead. Though I think most people thought I was a few years older than I was, this only added to my sense of being an imposter.
I remember one instance when this felt, in fact, true: my boss at the last minute had sent me in her place to Brussels to present to a special EU working group on counterterrorism. I knew–as I was managing her emails–that it was an important invitation, and they would probably have preferred no one to me, but still she insisted I go. As I predicted, my host could barely hide her horror when she met me in the lobby having missed the message that I would be standing in for my much older and much more experienced boss. I spent the rest of the day fielding polite, yet confused questions about who exactly I was, and what exactly was I doing there.
Over time, as I became more comfortable in the role, the outright embarrassment waned, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having to put on an act, to fill shoes bigger than my own. I remember doing small things like stretching my arms out on either side of my chair in meetings, a power stance men often use unwittingly, or limiting the inflections in my voice to make me seem more serious, more professional. I had this small, but nagging feeling that I wasn’t really supposed to be there, and as a result, I had to prove myself.
A version of this feeling stayed with me as I went on to my next job; I was hired as a project manager for an international development company overseeing UN, USAID, and EU-funded projects among others in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Being again young for the position at 24, I was less concerned about my age at this point as I was about all I had to learn. Working on the ground in a place like Afghanistan, I was surrounded by people who had careers 10 times longer than mine and knew 100 times more than I did about the context. While I was catching up and trying to learn as fast as I could, I often waffled between admitting how green I was and pretending like I knew what I was doing: something I had become used to and even adept at in my first job. It’s never flattering to act like you know something when you really don’t, but sometimes it is necessary. Especially in a complex region and especially when you’re talking to donors who are deciding whether to grant you money: a big part of my job. So as much as I loved my work, I again felt always a few steps behind, constantly playing a game of tag I could never win.
Occasionally I hear positive comments about how ‘much I’ve accomplished at a young age’, and while I am grateful for all I’ve had the opportunity to do, reflecting back, I set myself up for a very trying early work experience. I think I’ve finally found my stride after seven years—and though I personally wouldn’t take back any of my career choices—I think I would provide different advice than the often heard ‘aim as high as you can’ for young women at the start of their careers. While I think this is an important message in terms of not underestimating oneself, I think there’s an art to finding the right balance. Perhaps we don’t hear enough the advice to choose the position that’s going to build your confidence. The one that might challenge you in certain ways, but one that will also help you find your strengths and clearly see your weaknesses. In my case, I aimed perhaps too high at the start, biting off more than I could chew, and as a result rarely feeling like what I did was good enough. It took me perhaps a lot longer to have a clear idea of what my natural skillset was, because I was so often doing things I had never done before. In truth, everything felt like a weakness. And while this taught me a great deal, like a seven-year boot camp, it was a constant challenge not to get discouraged.
I have recently finished an MSc in International Strategy and Diplomacy at the LSE, where for the first time, despite being the youngest, I felt like I had grown out of my age-experience self-consciousness. And today, I am Chief of Strategy at a digital media start-up in Pakistan, where to my immense satisfaction, I feel like I know what I’m doing. At least 50% of the time. In my story, it took me seven years of a lot of uncertainty, self-doubt, and very hard work to get here. But that doesn’t have to be the case for every woman. I think that choosing the right amount of challenge, setting yourself up for success, and building your confidence early on may just be the most important factor in choosing a position. It’s advice I wish someone had told me even if I would make the same decisions over again. It could have saved me a whole lot of sweat and a few embarrassing moments.
About the author
Alexa Greenwald is Chief of Strategy for The Centrum Media, and is an alumna of LSE IDEAS (The London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank).
At only 26, Alexa has played major roles in both tackling radicalisation in Europe, and overseeing development in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Working with Sayara International, a development organisation committed to building positive change in transitioning societies, as the International programme manager responsible for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Alexa has used her experiences at LSE IDEAS to help navigate between the wants and desires of international policy makers, and the needs of the people on the ground in these developing nations.
Alexa has done a great deal at only a young age. However, she says that being a young woman shouldn’t hold you back in achieving your goals. She’s now moving into a new role as the Head of Strategy of a Media Company offering legitimate and independent news to the middle east.
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