I was educated in a private school, and most of the people I knew back then now resemble the definition of success. As I am already 27, I follow my old colleagues opening their own businesses, getting promotions within big companies, or becoming shareholders in law firms. But success was never my goal – I always saw having career plans as being somewhat selfish. I had the need to do things I loved. That usually involved helping people, teaching, learning, and fighting against whatever seemed unfair. It has always been about making wrong things right, even when I do not know exactly how right looks. That kept me way too busy to make long term plans.
But some weeks ago, things started to change. And it was because I learned a couple of things about a career in policy. Actually, the PLEN Women & Public Policy Seminar taught me a lot of things, about women, public policy, and careers – if you could only see my notebook… But my main takeaways were about positive impact and mutual support.
The idea of positive impact can be quite controverted, right? Especially in these times of political polarization, where we forgot how to understand the other side. I used to be good at this, but the political conflicts in my country, Brazil, diminished my ability. At the PLEN seminar, for the first time in years, I sat and truly heard people from the opposite side of the political spectrum. And surprisingly, I could agree with them on a lot of things. I could see how they were positively impacting reality with their work, even if they were doing the opposite thing that I would like to do. But they were as well informed, ethical, and passionate as the woman whose political beliefs I shared.
As I said before, I cannot work on something I am not passionate about, and I have the urge to make wrong things right. I immediately felt related to the passion and righteousness of all those women. I was suddenly making lists of goals and tasks in a page of my notebook (that got too small before the end of the seminar.) Making career plans and thinking about ways of completing them started feeling important. And when I looked around, there were so many brilliant women ready to help me on that. My peers, the speakers, and the PLEN staff were also teaching me about mutual support.
As a Brazilian woman, I was taught very early all I needed to know about competition among women. And I learned it quite well: According to my preschool teacher, I competed for my best (male) friend’s attention since age two; when I became a teenager, I competed with other girls to be “the leader”; When I got a little older, I competed for boys. That felt completely natural, until I started learning from amazing women about sisterhood. I learned that by competing, we were enforcing the social structures that kept us down. Female mutual support was a whole new world I’ve discovered in the last few years. It felt good and right, and took over my professional and personal activities.
But I did not expect to find it among people focused on their careers. A successful career is all about competing (and winning), right? Well, not among PLEN women. Every single day of my seminar I heard at least one powerful woman saying we needed to lift each other up and provide support to each other. My favorite piece of advice came from the mother of one of those wonderful women: She told her that networking is not about personal advantage, but about making friends and building relations.
Such advice brought all my lessons together. That having a successful career can be a great way of impacting your world positively; That being successful does not mean competing and trying to take each other down; That all of this can be done with passion and pleasure, being surrounded by amazing peers.
PLEN taught me that having ambitious career goals is not only about self-interest. It might actually be about making wrongs right. First of all, because the lack of representation of women in politics and policy is most definitely not right. Secondly, because women – as one of our brilliant speakers said – bring integrity and result-oriented work to the table. That means we can help making things better not only for us, perhaps because we are not as worried about being the alpha dogs. Because being a leader is not only about having power, but about using it with carefully, responsibly, and for the common good.
Marina Feldman is an international PhD student at Rutgers Graduate School of Education. She researches on early childhood education policy, and is expected to graduate in 2020. She attended the PLEN Women in Public Policy seminar after finishing her first semester at Rutgers. Read her research here and follow her on twitter @marinaafeldman.