Maria, 34, Germany (Berlin, Germany)




What is your story of strength?

Assuming that I am, I certainly was not always so strong. I was a bit of an outsider as a teenager. I got picked on a lot, and I felt I had to adapt to other people’s expectations, that I had to work on myself, had to basically work my way out of this situation.

Over the years, I became very hard on myself. I developed a thicker skin, but at some point may have even overdone it. It was getting hard to reach me emotionally, because I was hardening myself against things that were happening. But at some point, I realized that being strong in a healthy sense is not being hard, it is not being self-absorbed. Rather, being strong means you are able to be hurt, that you are able to fail, you have to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and you have to forgive others for not being perfect, and for not living up to your expectations.

So today, being strong is about endurance and the balance, and being in a good place overall.

Can you tell me about a woman in your life that embodies strength?

The one that comes to mind is my PhD adviser, a female professor. She is in her sixties now, retiring soon. She taught me three things that stuck with me.

The first is don’t be afraid if you don’t know everything. She accepted my PhD, being my adviser, without being an expert in the field herself. However, she gave great, really detailed feedback. She had an opinion on what I was doing without being an expert in the field, and this was great to see how you can provide a really valuable and useful perspective and offer a substantiated opinion on the topic without studying years and decades for it to make sense. She brought in a great outside perspective on things.

Second, she showed me how to command a room without being the loudest person. Just through her body language–she is a tiny woman, she is not a physical presence, she is not loud or forward. But by being smart, by waiting a couple of moments to answer, by sitting not in the back but at the table, in the front row–which is what she encouraged me to do– she takes her rightful place, both at the table and in the debate.

The third thing she taught me by example is how to support other women. She hired almost all female staff, something she took a lot of heat from male professors for–these male professors obviously have all male staff, and don’t see anything wrong with that. She would say look, I just found the smartest people in my classes to hire as teaching assistants or assistant professors, and these were largely female, they just stood out.

She encouraged all of her students, male or female, to live up to their full potential. All of her students have received countless recommendations, she gives them contacts, pulls strings for her students, male or female, and is really invested, particularly in her female students and staff. She doesn’t wait for people to come to her, which can favor male students, but rather will point out to students that they would be perfect for something, putting them forward. In short, she takes leadership.

Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

Many of us have failed many times. However, these days I think on one big project that failed as it is something I am maybe interested in doing again. Twelve years ago I started a transatlantic project, basically an exchange program for young leaders focused on the future of transatlantic relations. It was the Bush era, everyone was talking about the transatlantic rift, just like today, and we wanted to get away from the daily politics and look at what the US and Europe can achieve together. We wanted to work on scenarios, which was not that common back then, and focus on what we could change as future leaders. These days, I am reminded of this project quite often.

Back then, I was working with a small team, I was the vice project manager. My task was to hold everything together, something I wasn’t really equipped to do. I was very young, very inexperienced–we failed to get funding, we failed to keep everyone on board. We thought too big. We started small, but we lost the big battle for money and getting people invested in our project, and we phased it out at some point. It was a big disappointment for me because I believed in it so much, but in hindsight, I probably didn’t do enough, I did not have the resources and contacts I do now, and today would go about it very differently. And it is still bugs me, but at times I think I should try something like that again–so when I look back it also provides a lot of motivation.

How can women better support each other?

There are a couple of things. First, we should all embrace the term feminism, realize it is not a dirty word. We need to support each other more through professional networks, like Women in International Security, by mentoring younger women, and by not being ashamed to support other women. I would love to live in a world where we don’t need quotas or anything that resembles affirmative action for women, but until that has happened, until our societies have changed to that point, I think women need to be a little bit biased towards our gender to make up for centuries of male bias.

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