Dr. Tanja Wielgoss
I vowed to do at least as well as the best boy in the class. And I did.
I was 16 months old, my brother four weeks old, when our father died. My wonderful mother suddenly found herself all alone with two tiny children. I’m sure she’s the source of all my personal and professional achievements. She was always there to encourage us, and raised us without ever treating me any differently to my brother. She wanted both of us to make something of ourselves. When high school beckoned, it was clear to her that I shouldn’t go to the ‘goose farm’ – the all-girls grammar school – but to the first one in our area where girls and boys had lessons together. Girls were, of course, in the minority there. It was my initiation into the male-dominated day-to-day world of work that lay in store for me – and also my first conscious encounter with gender stereotypes. I can still vividly recall our new 10th grade math teacher coming into the classroom, taking a look round and pronouncing: ‘No need to worry if you girls find things a bit difficult – it’s only “natural”.’ That was my first ‘Lean in’ moment. I vowed to do at least as well as the best boy in the class. And I did.
In 1992 I began studying in what was then still the ‘Wild East’ of Germany, reading Political Science at Jena. Ours was the first degree course with 20 majoring students. In group discussions, although I often raised my hand, I got to say barely anything – until one of the lecturers came up to me and said he’d been watching me for weeks. He said he’d noticed how, although I seemed to have plenty to say, I couldn’t get the others to listen to my ideas. Was it that I was too afraid, or that a (male) classmate was quicker or louder than me? And did I want to let things carry on like that? I was surprised and embarrassed not to have already realized this for myself. Of course I wanted things to change. To start with, we agreed I’d speak up once per seminar, which later became twice. In the end, I spoke only whenever I thought it appropriate – which was almost always significantly more than twice per session.
At the time I joined A.T. Kearney, I was heavily pregnant. I hadn’t planned things that way. I’d already considered withdrawing my application, something my husband couldn’t understand. Once again, it became plain to me that it was time for a ‘Lean in’. Certain comments from colleagues – such as ‘you’ll never be able to pull off starting a new job in your condition’ – really cut deep. And yet: there I was. When, following the birth of our daughter and four months’ parental leave, I returned to work on an 80% FTE contract, one thing was clear to me: this was where I wanted to make my contribution and bring about change. I founded the DACH-Women Network and was overwhelmed by the strength of the responses I received. Meanwhile, I’m still working on an 80% contract, have become a Partner at A.T. Kearney, have an adorable little son alongside my delightful daughter, and rejoice every week at the balance there is in my life.
An ophthalmic plastic surgeon reflects on her past and the valuable lessons learned along the way.
Ophthalmic Plastic Surgeon