7 min read

Why Women Are So Bloody Exhausted Right Now

This week, I had a great question from a Wednesday Wisdom reader. J wrote:

"I'd like to ask for advice - especially as a woman - on how to not get in your own way. Self doubt, imposter syndrome, self esteem issues - what ever you want to call it - why is it that we doubt ourselves and how do we get over this? Any tips on how to manage this when burnt out and low on resilience?

I do so much introspection, growth, development etc and am frustrated that I still have to do this work continuously, especially when other (read: men) dont (or dont seem to - painting with a broad brush here!)."

J, you're not alone. The inner critics of women across the world are speaking loudly, and bringing us down. If there was an easy answer, I'd love to know it - and give it to you! But it did send me off to do some digging.

Here's what I found...

The Confidence Gap

Everyone struggles from self-doubt at times - but women far more so. The competence-confidence connection isn't linear, and there's a big difference between the sexes on this one. Men lean towards over-confidence in their abilities, while women lean the other way. Our lack of confidence has huge implications - undervaluing our worth leads us to settle for less pay, stops us from applying for promotions and jobs we deserve, and leads to us taking on more than we should.

Why, though?

1. High expectations - There is a very clear social mould that women are socialised to fit into, from an early age. The way we should sit, look, act, eat, work and care for others is prescriptive and reinforced constantly. In an effort to fit that mould, we criticise and self-regulate, over-analyse, downplay our effort and highlight our shortcomings. That inner critic leads us to under-evaluate our true performance.

2. Role overload - Many women feel pressured to be everything to everyone - and expect nothing short of perfection in every domain. We feel as though we need to be present, nurturing mothers; ambitious, productive employees; confident, inspiring leaders; engaged, connected community members; thoughtful, enthusiastic friends; responsible, caring family members... and so on. Absolutely nobody can fulfil all of those roles at 100% but the scrutiny we face leads us to think we should.

3. Male overconfidence - The comparative over-confidence of men gives them a huge advantage in the work place. Because they overestimate their abilities, men are more likely to put their ideas forward, to speak up, to call out decisions they think are wrong and to sustain failure or criticism. With women at one extreme, and men at the other, it's no wonder there's such a big gap.

4. The world is built for men - Our workplaces are designed for men. From the structure of our work day and the hours in a traditional working week, the nature of relationship-building opportunities, visibly valued leadership capabilities and esteemed role models through to logistical issues (maternity leave penalties, unfair access to toilet facilities, ergonomic differentiation and poorly constructed PPE), we are navigating a system that simply isn't designed for us to succeed. It's pretty hard to feel like we fit, when we literally don't. We face systemic bias at every turn, are marginalised and excluded from recruitment and meetings and have to work harder for the same reward.

5. The Appearance Tax- Women are socialised into the importance of their appearance from an early age. Not only are we supposed to be amazing, we're supposed to look amazing while we do it. Our body image has been so closely tied to our overall worth, that we experience crushing internal and external pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards. The work that goes into attempting to achieve that - and the guilt that comes from failing to - consumes far too much energy that could be directed into our competence. Female leaders are scrutinised for their appearance in ways that men couldn't begin to imagine (check out any Facebook thread about the New Zealand PM for fast and accessible evidence of this) and all this distraction undermines a focus on our confidence.

The Exhaustion Gap

Unsurprisingly, all of the factors that contribute to the confidence gap are fecking tiring. They'd be enough to send us into an exhausted heap - but those things aren't all that are burning us out. We're also taking on a hugely unfair emotional burden at work and home and the globally observed increase in stress levels since the pandemic is hitting women harder at every step.

Again, why?

1. Flexibility isn't that flexible

While working arrangements have adjusted massively over the last couple of years, flexible working isn't helping women in the same way it's helping men. Men have always enjoyed more space for leisure time in their schedules, and reducing commute and increasing work/life balance has made that even more possible. For women, however, being home more simply increases the amount of housework, childcare and domestic management we are expected to achieve in our day.

2. Discrimination is quieter now

Increased focus on gender equity in the workplace has dark side-effects. With our policies and narrative more encouraging than ever, discrimination has been driven underground. The vast majority of women in the workplace have experienced harassment or micro-aggressions (being talked over, interrupted or patronised) in the last year at work. Most of these are unreported for fear of being difficult or facing backlash, which puts a huge mental and emotional management burden on women to suck it up, process it on their own time and carry on.

3. Unequal division of emotional and mental labour

Working mothers are significantly more likely to burnout than working fathers. The ongoing inequity in how household chores are divided is bad enough, but combine that with the responsibility for school events, extra-curricular admin, remembering appointments, coordinating communication and logistics, shouldering responsibility for healthcare and financial decisions, and we've simply got more on our minds. Decision fatigue sets in much faster for women, because we're making more of them.

4. The broken rung

Women are less likely than men to be promoted to management, leaving many of us in jobs we're overqualified for. The frustration and stress that comes from a lack of autonomy and the boredom of underutilisation is a huge contributor to burnout. We experience less joy from our jobs, then we go home to experience more pressure and less joy from our personal lives too.

5. Office housework

Women are responsible for more of the unrecognised labour in the workplace - from leading health and wellbeing programs and providing pastoral support, to organising meetings, taking minutes, ordering supplies, following up emails and chasing deadlines. In short: all the stuff we do at home, but at work. This unseen labour keeps organisations ticking along, but it crowds out the time, space and energy we have for our actual jobs which tires us out much faster.

Tl;DR: Women are expected to do more, much of which isn't valued, and it still isn't good enough for ourselves or others. 

There's nothing wrong with you, J. There's a lot wrong with the world we live in.

Managing those pressures can't be managed by one woman alone - that kind of individual thinking is what keeps us lonely, small and feeling not good enough. But there's a few things we can do, together, to help turn the curve in our homes and workplaces.


1. Push back on bullshit - All those little slights and micro-aggressions that don't get called out accumulate. When we let ourselves and others be talked over, ignore 'harmless jokes' and put the unequal representation of women around the leadership table down to chance rather than naming it for the universal pattern it is, we allow it to continue. Every time we push back and make other people uncomfortable with our discomfort, we put the collective responsibility for change back where it belongs.

2. Make the invisible, visible - Our mental and emotional load stays hidden because the it isn't as tangible as making and producing things. The entire economy runs on the unpaid care labour of women, and it will stay that way if we leave it unseen. A well meaning older lady once advised me, as a work-from-home parent, to leave clues. Don't push the vaccuum cleaner away, she advised, so that when he trips over it, he is reminded that the floor isn't clean by accident. The vaccuum cleaner theory applies to all the other work we do too - the permission slips we fill in, the 1:1 coaching we do out of hours, and the meetings we organise. Make that work visible, delegate those responsibilities to others, and let them mess it up while they fumble around figuring it out. Men can operate smartphones and run empires, they can bloody well work a washing machine and organise catering.

3. Tell yourself the truth - Stop speaking to yourself in such horrific ways. We tell ourselves things we would never tolerate from our loved ones - imagine calling your exhausted, hard-working best friend tired, lazy, fat or a terrible mother? You wouldn't, because it's incorrect and hurtful. Yet we're perfectly happy to let those tracks run on repeat in our own minds. Be your own best friend and biggest advocate, and do it loudly and obviously so that other women hear you do it. Highlight your successes, say nice things about your effort and look for evidence of your value - because it's everywhere. Be the girl who hypes you in the pub bathroom, to yourself, every damn day.

4. Stop putting other people's comfort first - We're not the only ones socialised to believe we should be nice, kind, dainty humans who make other people feel good - it's expected of us by our colleagues, bosses, partners, children and friends too. When you start to behave differently by pushing back, prioritising leisure time and demanding more equality at work or home, you will face backlash. People may like you less. That's not your problem. You weren't put here to be nice to everyone, and not everyone will like you for the choices you make. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Your peace is worth far more than their pleasure. Accept other's annoyance for what it is: their problem.

5. Band Together - Women are driven into shame, silence and competition, because that serves existing power structures. For some of us, the only way we've got ahead is by allying ourselves with men - which makes sense! Get three of us over a wine, though, and there is nothing but love. When we stop being complicit in our own discrimination and refuse to judge women more harshly, be suspicious of each other's motives, or point the finger when things go wrong, we say no to a system that wants to keep us isolated. When we open conversations about unfair treatment, stick up for each other and offer support, praise and unity, we're unstoppable. Build those work friendships, celebrate each other's success, refuse to participate in gossip and highlight the great stuff being done by other women.

If nothing else, J - I see you. You're great, and you're tired, and you deserve better. It's not your fault and it's not OK.


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