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A 3-Hour In-flight Conversation with A Stranger

On my 3-hour flight to Helsinki last week, I sat next to Claire, a friendly and smiley English woman in her late 20s/early 30s. She’s a geologist, working on projects that look after our planet. She loves her job, her company, and her colleagues. You can feel her enthusiasm in her eyes. As someone who studies career decisions and workplace cultures, I was intrigued and happy for her.

After she learned about my background, she started telling me about an intern she mentors at work. The young mentee feels that she’s not getting the opportunity she wants, is talked over (by senior white men) during meetings, and is experiencing imposter syndrome. Claire, being her mentor, struggles to give the young mentee advice. She struggles because she personally experienced all of these problems herself. She navigated by letting go and sucking it up, but worried about telling the mentee to do so.

On experiencing imposter syndrome, I said: People experience imposter syndrome when they have self-doubts about their abilities and feel like a fraud. There is anxiety about not meeting expectations, even when they exceed them. One way I’ve navigated is to remove these expectations with a learning orientation. When there is no expectation of who or how you should be, there is no imposter. When you focus on learning, you relieve the anxiety about not performing because your attention is on getting better. And even if someone seems better than you, it could be that they just had more experience. That is, if you learn, you can too. Perhaps rather than comforting your mentee by telling her she’s good enough, help her explore her learning goals and identify ways and opportunities to facilitate this process.

On being talked over by men during meetings, I said: What you are describing could be a gender bias. Unfortunately, many women suck it up by giving men the benefit of the doubt. Yes, this senior white man might not intend to interrupt and cut you and her off. But that could be an implicit bias. If you’re worried about confronting him directly, one (counterintuitive) option is to seek his advice. Ask him: “How could we involve the interns more during meetings? How can we create a more inclusive team culture?” If he really is as nice, willing to help, and socially dominant as you describe, he will happily offer suggestions. He might even be the one engaging with the interns in the next meetings.

Claire loved these ideas. She had a huge smile and said, “You should get paid for this advice! I can't wait to try these next week when I'm back at work!".

I was so glad to see the spark in her eyes. She later told me that her mum sadly passed away two years ago due to cancer. Within a month, the boyfriend of four years broke up with her and said he hasn’t loved her for over a year. She stopped going into the office just to avoid seeing him, despite really liking her job and seeing her colleagues. She's glad he's resigned so she can go back to the office now.

"You are a very strong woman you know. Despite all the hardship, you are still so enthusiastic about work and passionate about life. Even on your holiday, you are talking to me about ways to better mentor your mentee at work. That’s extraordinary.”

She had tears in her eyes. She said this conversation was the best start of her journey.

"Mine too," I said.

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