She is me.

[This is a post containing massive over-generalizations, I’m sure, but I just don’t have the time, inclination, or the credentials to do a whole, you know, research study on this.]

Since leaving my last job, an executive-level position at a large nonprofit, I have been having lots of conversations with women. Most of these conversations are with women I felt a friendly connection to during a work situation, although on a recent family vacation to Amsterdam, I had a similar type of conversation with a woman I met during a food tour of the city.

That’s the thing, you see. That’s why I’m writing about these conversations—because they’re similar. The same themes keep on coming up again, having to do with how these women feel about work, and life, and professional fulfillment, and identity. Most of these conversations have been with women around my age, but not all of them have been, and the age difference is only noticeable in that I shift to more of a mentoring stance with the younger women, although sometimes I feel just as mentored and guided by the young women talking to me.

The general conversation goes like this: it comes up that I’ve recently left my job, and how I am starting a consulting practice, but am feeling it’s going a bit slowly. And then they tell me that they just left a job, or they want to leave their job. These women, they’re all accomplished, really smart, funny, thoughtful. They are of all colors and cultures, although most of them, as I’ve said, are around my age. For whatever reason, we all seem to have found ourselves at a crossroads, professionally speaking. We all know we are good at working, we all have had the opportunity to feel successful, but none of us are quite sure how this translates into a next thing for us.

I’ve had conversations with men lately, too, but I find the conversations with women to be more relatable, for obvious reasons, and also more unsettling in terms of how consistent the themes are. The men I’ve talked with, not as much consistency, except for this—they don’t really express whatever it is they’re going through in terms of confusion, loss, or identity. In fact, they are not particularly expressive about it at all. One of my very closest friends was going through a ton of stress at work—new boss, changing team members—and when I asked him if he was okay, he kept on saying, “I’m fine,” but then several months later, he would tell me what had been really going on, and add, “Now, I’m really doing better.” He had to not tell me about this in real time, because that was just his way. My husband, too, is going through a stressful, tumultuous period at work lately, and he talks about it sporadically and in spurts, at completely unpredictable moments. I find that there is no shared norm for men to express how they’re feeling when they’re feeling it. Or perhaps they just need to process things differently. (Did I mention the massive over-generalizations in this post?)

Women, on the other hand, at least the ones I’ve met: we seem to settle easily into a cozy chat with coffee, or over the phone, and explore life’s big themes with regularity. And lately, as I’ve said, the conversations I’ve had feel so much the same, it’s like experiencing déjà vu. Themes like:

–I’ve been in/am still in an unhappy work situation.

–I feel like I’ve been really successful and accomplished a lot of good things, but I don’t want to keep doing what I’m doing. I want to try something new.

–I need to figure out what I want to do next.

–I want to work with people I admire and respect and like, and do something different, but equally meaningful.

–I am so sick of petty, toxic crap at work. I am tired of all of the personality-driven feedback given to women in the workplace.

–What’s going on in America right now is really weighing heavily on me.

–I don’t feel like I can add a job change to everything else that’s going on in my life right now, but I still feel stuck.

These themes have surfaced again and again during these conversations I’ve been in, and I pretty much have them playing on endless loop in my head. On top of that, I have the following themes very much on my mind:

–I’m hearing that men are getting increasingly scared to interact with women in the workplace—and these days, I am feeling increasingly woke on gender equality and feminism and am wondering if this is going to hurt/harm me in future workplace situations.

–I am questioning, these days, whether I am being perceived as an Asian-American stereotype—the Dragon Lady, the Tiger Mom—and I am thinking of all the times I acted Hello Kitty cute to counteract those stereotypes, and how I simply can’t do that anymore. “Direct” and “personable” are two adjectives that have constantly come up in feedback to describe me; I want to still embody those attributes without falling victim to harmful stereotyping.

–I am proud of the experience and accomplishments captured on my resume, but I also feel as if my resume is forcing me towards another leadership/executive position, or creating the impression that I am just an antiquated fossil, ready for retirement (at age 50). And I am wondering I need to actively counteract those impressions. I’m wondering whether, career-wise, I should take the left turn to Albuquerque (H/T Bugs Bunny).  

So okay. What do I do with all of this? What are these conversations teaching me about others, about myself, and about women in the workforce? Here are the lessons I’m extrapolating from these conversations:

  • We women should be given the chance to break out of our work molds and try something new. It’s crazy to me how hard we have to work to do this. The women I’ve met are good at so many things—things that I found were in very short supply during most of the jobs I’ve had. We can lead! We can mentor! Which means that we can manage! We can see the big picture and focus on the details at the same time. We get shit done.
  • We should be able to talk about feminism and gender issues without getting labeled as difficult, or non-compliant.
  • The movement of #MeToo should NOT be used as a basis for less inclusion and diversity. If you are not making a conscious, intentional effort to hire more women and women of color, then you are totally missing the main point.

And the biggest lesson of all? To keep on having these conversations. To keep on listening, to be thoughtful, to dispense advice when asked for it, to offer support and encouragement when not asked for it. And to stay open to all the possibilities in the world for women standing at the crossroads, and maybe even to create some possibilities, too.

Recommended reading on these topics:

The New Midlife Crisis for Women

Generation X—not millennials—is changing the nature of work