How I went from Superwoman fuelled by “I’m not good enough” to helping thousands of STEM women release the past and build ambitious impactful careers whilst balancing the things and people that mean most to them
Dr Hannah Roberts is a scientist and award-winning coach with clients spanning six continents. She is on a mission to eradicate inequity in the workplace by guiding professionals to design careers for fulfilment with a mindset for leadership to build progressive workplace cultures where every individual feels valued.
Other people’s well-meaning advice
When I was 8 years old, I begged my Mum and Dad for a science kit for my birthday, shortly followed by a telescope and all the ‘how my body works’ books. After a careers day, I came home and announced, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I didn’t have the vocab back them for “making a difference – helping others.” There was also a status attached to wanting to be a doctor and naturally my parents reaffirmed my decision.
The choice of an 8-year-old informed all of my academic subjects all the way up to A-Level. I liked the sound of psychology and had a notion of studying art alongside the sciences but after a quick chat with one of the teachers and my parents I was easily persuaded that art was a hobby and maths would be much more beneficial to the sciences.
I applied and received a place to do Medicine at The University of Manchester. The evening after our A-Level results, everyone was out congratulating each other. I went home early. I could not enjoy it at all. It took 3 days for The University of Manchester to confirm, I had lost my place by 1 grade and wouldn’t be accepted.
NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH. I vowed that I would not fail again.
I went to study the subject I enjoyed most – Chemistry.
“I felt that others were breezing through their studies with natural talents and capabilities. Meanwhile, I used sheer grit and determination.”
Nevertheless, I ended up with a 1st class 86 % average. I don’t say this to show off. The cracks of pressure I was putting myself under were already visible.
During the final project presentation, two eminent Professors laughing and joking with each other turned to me and said, “put your notes down and tell us about your project.” It completely threw me.
“I felt exposed and like I didn’t know enough.”
The dread and panic drained through me. I gave one-word answers and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I ran down the corridor crying, and something switched that day. I developed an emotional allergy to presenting which negatively impacted the next decade of my career.
I spent the next 4 years flitting from a prestigious graduate development scheme in industry, to research business management then a teaching qualification. None of it was right. It felt like my peers and friends were all moving forwards and I kept starting and restarting over and over again.
How could someone with so much potential end up like this?
Anxiety and panic attacks took over. My world became smaller as the people, places and activities I felt comfortable with narrowed. On the outside, you wouldn’t have been able to tell, I was high functioning. On the inside, a daily internal struggle was taking place. There was never any external pressure from my parents or anyone else, I created my own expectations and I wasn’t living up to them.
- A study by the University of California, Berkeley, found nearly half of postgraduate students met criteria to classify them as depressed.
- The anxiety rates of doctoral researchers are 6X higher than the national average. 7 in 10 academics experience imposter syndrome.
- 55% of PhD students are concerned about work-life balance. Many feel isolated when working and guilty when not working.
I tried yoga, meditation, CBT and counselling. They all helped in their own way. They got me to 60%.
I was then offered a PhD by my old Masters supervisor. In my final year, I married Mark and started to look ahead to the big question that I had managed to avoid for the last 4 years. What next?
Noticing the leaky pipeline for the first time
When I started out as an undergrad 43% were women. I didn’t even notice there was a ‘leaky pipeline’ until this moment in time. I looked ahead to those in positions two steps ahead of me and I found 5.
Women in Chemical Sciences
5 female academics in a department of over 200. Only 3 had children and none had this part time Professor role that I had conjured up as ideal for me. It was the first time I realised, there weren’t many people like me where I was heading.
A colleague recommended me for a postdoc. Although I was the one that showed up for the interview, I felt that the only reason I got the position was because of my connection. It was unearned.
The first layer of imposter syndrome.
"The ability to internalise and own ones success"
Two weeks into my postdoc I felt pregnant. This took my imposter syndrome to a whole new level. I now needed to not only prove myself but also become indispensable so that my contract would be extended and I would have a job to go back to
I became to go to person to get things done. Said yes to everything and operated at 200 mph to ensure that I met those silent expectations. This is Superwoman. Look closely at my face. I was oh so tired that my face ached.
No matter what I was doing, I did it at speed. Working, eating, cleaning, walking. Rushing and being pulled in a million different directions. An adrenalized state fuelled by fears. Comparing myself unfavourably to others and worried about the long-term security of my role.
Superwoman is the archetype of our times and if her standards seem unattainable, they probably are. But it doesn’t stop Superwoman from trying.
Superwoman is fine for 15 minutes in an emergency but I was living there not just for weeks or months but years. Operating in this way impacts our health, relationships and stalls careers.
The Capability Trap
On the PhD to Postdoc career conveyor belt I had been tasked with additional responsibilities like project management and outreach. I’d stretched and expanded that role as far as it could go, even starting a spin out company with 3 other female academics. Not before long, I had been subtly shaped and moulded to fit someone else’s purpose.
On a professional development away day I attended a session on Talent Dynamics and took the profiling tool. When it came back, I was shocked. It sounded nothing like me. During the debrief, we dug into why.
Answering the questions in the context of work rather than from my natural preferences. Turns out, my job role was the complete opposite of my natural talents. No wonder it felt like hard work.
That’s when I realised, I was in the Capability Trap.
“Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.”
Career Design Strategy
In my scientific project manager role, I was trying to get the research to where it needed to be as fast as possible.
As Superwoman, I was spinning so many plates it felt impossible to stop, surely, they would all come crashing down around me? Through coaching and personal development, I let go of the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that no longer served me and uncovered a career design strategy.
These 6 steps are the exact process I used to feel fulfilled and add the most value and contribution in the world. Within this framework, I found true self-confidence and no longer needed external validation.
Being coached gave me the elusive 40% of myself back, whilst simultaneously unlocking a whole new set of skills and resources I didn’t know existed within me.
From scientist to coach and professional skills trainer
I found the tools so uncomplicated yet profound that I went through a rigorous 12-month qualification to coach and teach these exact tools. I am now a fully regulated coach with the International Coaching Federation, trained in Talent Dynamics and Voice Dialogue with over 100 gold standard coaching, leadership and NLP-based tools to support your journey.
It can feel (relatively) easy to leave something that isn’t right for something else. It can be much more challenging to leave something that is good, for something more. I chose more.
Ready to rewrite your story?
“What you are seeking is seeking you”
Start by devouring some great reading
I want to acknowledge that choice is, by definition, a privilege that not all members of society have. This is one of the many reasons I have pledged to be a B1G1 Business for Good. I donated 10% of profits in the first two years of business to 500 Women Scientists, directly supporting nine fellows on the Fellowship for the Future leadership development initiative for women of colour in STEM. In 2022, I read Thirst by Scott Harrison and Lisa Sweetingham and have chosen to champion clean water solutions because 771 million people in the world are living without clean water, and access to clean water means better education, income and health, especially for women and children. I pledged tickets to various workshops, and at the time of writing the sales have given 12,000 days’ access to clean water. Making a contribution to society beyond the tangible impacts of my primary business is rewarding and another way to experience fulfilment.