A few years back I did my first paying gig for my little startup company. I was building Tableau workbooks for an organization on behalf of 10 clients and all had the same requirements. It was a pretty straightforward job. When I was done, I sent them an invoice for the work. One of the 10 wrote me a note saying he assumed I was doing the work pro bono, because I had done some pro bono work for him in the past. He implied the work for the other 9 clients had come as a benefit of his relationship with the organization, and that I was getting plenty of work as a result.
My first impulse was to apologize. Profusely. I spent an hour on the response and eventually threw out the draft.
My second reaction was to go back through all our correspondence and outline exactly where he'd misunderstood, and to provide the legal agreement to back it up. That draft went into the garbage too after another wasted hour.
Finally, I imagined what a man might do in that situation. I wrote a very short email saying in fact that I was not working pro bono, and the amount he owed was $150. I signed it without apology. But I didn't send it. I fussed and fretted over how that would make me look. Would I be perceived as pushy? A bitch? Would I lose any future work with that company as a result?
I closed my eyes and pressed send.
Ten minutes later I got my response.
"Okay, no problem."
I went through all the emotions; I was angry at myself for first apologizing, embarrassed I had churned so long over the tiny details that meant so much to me...and then to get a response that made it seem like it was no big deal...was it really that easy?
I took my experience to my students to ask them about what had happened.
Their reaction was strong and swift, and it was something to the effect of 'how dare you apologize,' and 'you better not have given him a discount!'
And that's when I thought to myself, 'oh. i am not the mentor they think i am.'
Like so many women I question my contributions, and I've sown enough doubt to harvest for a long time. But here's where I'm struggling a bit: the world has changed for women within my lifetime. All the things we tell young women and girls now weren't always said when I was that age. Yet young women and girls look to me as a mentor and guide, as if I'm a living example of all the things we share with them.
It ain't true, not a bit.
Like you, I'm trying to find my way too. Sometimes I'll get it wrong. But I look to you, the younger women in the room. The ones raised as feminists, as STEM kids, taught you could do anything - I look to you for guidance too. I can borrow your strength and sass and reflect it back - and maybe one day become the person you need me to be.