The plane begins its descent into the forested landscape surrounding Stockholm, Sweden. The late evening flight from Bonn, Germany is a short one. It feels like I’ve only just gotten settled into my seat, and now we’re already preparing to land. As I buckle my seat belt, tiny goosebumps race up my arms, causing my hair to stand on end. Shivering, I pull on my favorite jean jacket and snuggle into the soft, worn denim fabric. I brace myself for the landing — not because the flight is bumpy, but rather because the countdown has just begun.
My arrival in Stockholm means that I’m less than twelve hours away from attending the first big meeting of my nuclear career as part of a prestigious fellowship at the German government. I get to spend the next two days meeting with representatives from foreign countries to discuss ways to improve public communications during a nuclear emergency. I haven’t even finished my master’s degree, and I’m actually getting a seat at the table — representing the German government no less. A surge of excitement mixes with the raw nerves in my stomach. The plane dips sharply, and bile rises in my throat.
When I reach the baggage claim, it’s nearly empty. Only a few carrousels operate at that late hour, and the suitcases for my flight have yet to appear. My skin tingles with anticipation, and I glance at my watch to count the hours of sleep. By the time I get my bag, grab a cab, and check into my hotel in downtown Stockholm, I’ll get a maximum of five or six hours. I want to be in my best form tomorrow. This is my chance to prove myself.
I shake my head in disbelief — this is actually happening. Two weeks ago, my boss, the head of the Office of Nuclear Policy at the German Federal Ministry of Environment, had asked me if I wanted to go to Stockholm in his place. Despite my status as a visiting fellow, he told me I’d be representing Germany at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Since I’ve always tended to jump at a challenge first and think about the freefall later, I said, “Sure, why not? Sounds like fun.”
What was I thinking? Of course, I’ve always dreamed of having a seat at the table in nuclear policy. But more than that, I want to belong to the group sitting around it. How am I supposed to do that as a young American woman representing Germany at a high-level meeting? The representatives will be senior government officials. They will be much older than me. And most of them will be men. I look down at my blue jeans, t-shirt, and tennis shoes and smirk to myself. Who am I kidding? Even dressed in my best suit, there’s no way in hell I’m fitting in with that group.
The baggage carousel beeps a few times, bringing me back to the present. I watch the bags go by on the conveyor belt. I look eagerly for the turquoise-colored tag on my suitcase. After nearly everyone from my flight has collected their bags, my pulse spikes. I stare numbly at the conveyor belt, and I will my bag to appear. But the belt keeps moving around and around, completely empty. A thick lump forms in my throat as the terrible reality sets in. I’m going to have to wear my jeans and tennis shoes to the big meeting tomorrow. I close my eyes and try to breathe.
Almost two decades later, that horrible, sinking realization that my suitcase is missing still takes my breath away. I want to tell my younger self that her embarrassment will not be the end of the world. Other country representatives have probably experienced the same thing. And they’ve learned to pack a backup suit in their carry-on.
But it’s also not the end of the world for a different reason. Her clothes don’t matter. The barriers to fitting into the group are impossible to breach. You see, she can’t change who she is — a young, smart, innovative, talented woman. She can’t dress better, look prettier, be more prepared, be smarter, work harder, perform better, produce more results, get more degrees, or even smile more often.
Almost two decades later, that horrible, sinking realization that my suitcase is missing still takes my breath away. I want to tell my younger self that her embarrassment will not be the end of the world.
There’s nothing she can do or say to fit in with a group of crusty, old, white men. She must first be admitted by those in power. They’re the ones who determine the criteria for acceptance. And what she doesn’t know is this: The annual membership costs are extremely high for someone like her, and her boss has only given her temporary admission.
I steal a quick glance at the government officials sitting around the table. I count one woman besides myself. She’s also American, a fellow blonde, but already in her late forties. Her table tent indicates she manages communications for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Our Swedish host, a pudgy man with white hair, sits across the table from me. He runs public affairs for the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate. The rest of the participants have similar credentials. But since I’m just a visiting fellow, my table tent lacks a formal title.
I stare down at my brand new black wool suit jacket, matching trousers, silk turquoise blouse, and shiny black leather shoes, and a feeling of relief expands into my chest. The previous night, my airline informed me that my suitcase would not arrive until sometime during the second day of my meeting. I had a decision to make: show up to the meeting in my t-shirt and jeans for two days in a row or go shopping for new clothes first thing in the morning and arrive late. It was a no-brainer.
Even so, my overpriced clothes didn’t stop anyone from staring open-mouthed when I arrived. The spectacle of a twenty-something, non-titled, American girl representing Germany, stumbling into the meeting forty-five minutes late, out of breath and with a bright-red, sweaty face, was hard to miss. But it would have been a thousand times worse if I’d showed up in my jeans.
Taking another peek around the table, I exhale sharply. If I can just act “normal” from here on out, hopefully they’ll forget that I stick out like a sore thumb. I’ll keep my head down, focus on taking notes, and avoid attracting any more attention.
The Swedish chair finishes reviewing the agenda. Then he turns to the government official to his left to begin opening statements. I sit up straight in my chair, feeling a sharp fluctuation in my nerves. Wait, what? Opening statements? My boss never told me about having to make an opening statement. I quickly count the number of people before me. In a panic, I scribble unintelligible words onto the pad of paper.
The French representative begins his speech. He’s a sophisticated-looking man in his forties with a perfectly coiffed head of hair and mustache. Wearing a bespoke blue cashmere suit and a pink, silk tie, he looks like he’s just stepped out of a leading fashion house in Paris. Admiring his sense of style and perfect posture, I nod subtly to myself. There’s no way I would have survived the humiliation of wearing jeans to this meeting.
My stomach flips when I realize it will soon be my turn to speak. My mouth runs dry, and my heart beats like a drum. I take a deep breath and begin scratching the paper with my pencil. In the background, I vaguely hear the French representative mention something about Germany. Unfazed, I continue to focus on my own statement, going over the words in my head.
The room becomes eerily silent. I look up to see everyone staring at me, and the blood drains from my face. I glance over at the Frenchman, and he grimaces back at me as if he’s won some sort of victory. Sensing my confusion, the Swedish chair informs me that the French representative has made a derogatory comment about the lack of an independent nuclear regulator in Germany. He asks me if I would like the chance to respond as the representative of the German government.
“Oh, I guess that was directed at me,” I blurt instinctively, pointing to my table tent. The room ripples with laughter. Then I look over at the French representative and say politely, “Sir, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ll relay your critique back to my boss right away. I’m sure you’ll hear from him promptly.” Another cascade of laughter travels around the room.
To this day, I still shake my head at the Frenchman’s failed attempt to rattle me. My instinctual response to him, though in retrospect a brilliant one, came mostly from my confusion over the strange situation. I couldn’t figure out why he would make such a comment. After all, he knew I was an American nobody, filling in for my German boss. He must have known I wouldn’t take any critique of Germany’s nuclear energy policy personally. So, what was the point of his jab?
At the time, I didn’t know enough to see it for what it was — his intense resentment toward me. The Frenchman wanted me to feel in the barest sense possible that I did not belong to the group. But the truth was actually quite ironic. The fact that I obviously didn’t fit must have been somehow threatening to him. So much so that he needed to make a point of it. He didn’t think I deserved a seat at the table — at least not at a table alongside him.
Although my younger self has just received her first taste of the struggles ahead, she still has a lot to learn. She doesn’t yet know that the secret to belonging is not an external thing. Rather, it comes from somewhere within herself.
I watch nervously as the representatives file back into the conference room, still laughing heartily about stories shared over lunch. In the restaurant, there’s an easy and warm camaraderie among them that I find quite surprising. They’ve clearly met together many times before. And they seem to like each other on a personal level, a stunning contrast to their stiff opening statements which were followed by several hours of contentious deliberations earlier that morning.
The Swedish chair calls the meeting to order, opening up the afternoon session. Hoping to avoid further scrutiny from the Frenchman, I keep my head down and focus on taking notes for my boss.
After two more hours of deliberations, the meeting descends into a tense dispute over minor points between several countries. I listen carefully as each representative makes their case. To me, the positions sound different in word, yet seem to convey a subtle commonality. The more they disagree with each other, the more it sounds to me like there is room for consensus.
Shouldn’t someone point that out to the group? If I’m right, shouldn’t this be obvious to someone else at the table? After all, I’m the only one with zero real-world negotiation experience. Surely, someone will say something.
My hand raises into the air for an intervention before I have a chance to change my mind. The sound of my pounding heart thrashes in my ears, but it’s too late to take it down now. A thin sheen of sweat forms on my face as I wait to be recognized. The Swedish chair finally calls on me.
In a shaky voice, I propose a solution that incorporates common elements from around the table. To my surprise, the Swedish chair jumps up with a broad smile on his face, grateful for the breakthrough. He walks over to the whiteboard on the wall and begins scribbling as I outline areas of agreement from different representatives. Soon the others join in the discussion, their attention shifting away from their disagreements to areas where they can make some progress. The stalemate is broken.
The memory of my first big meeting in Stockholm always makes me smile. By the end of the two-day session, there was no doubt in my mind where I belonged anymore. The representatives reached a consensus to accept my suggestions. They also nominated me to coordinate several follow-up projects, which pleased my German boss to no end.
That trip, I learned a valuable lesson about the important difference between fitting in and belonging — and where to best spend my energy. No matter how hard I tried, I was never going to fit in with that group. I was obviously an outsider among them. I was a young woman sitting among older men. I wasn’t representing my own country. I’d never attended any prior meetings. I met everyone there for the first time.
Fitting in means changing things about yourself to be more like the rest of the group, like your clothes, gender, opinions, or attitudes. Belonging involves pushing past the natural desire for acceptance and finding out where you can add value through your personal strengths or unique perspective.
I discovered that being different was a strength that could be wielded with enormous potential. Whereas other representatives had entrenched themselves, holding steadfast to their rigid positions, I was able to see different angles of the problem and recognize areas in which they agreed. During that meeting, I proved to myself that I belonged by contributing a unique point of view and by demonstrating my ability to find a workable compromise.
And so, my younger self won her first battle. But she’d not yet begun fighting the war. Every single time I’ve managed to earn a seat at the table since then, I’ve had to prove that I belong there — over and over again.
As I reflect on the past and plan for the rest of my career, I’ve thought a lot about my younger self as she’s about to attend that first big meeting. I think about what I’d want to say to prepare her for the experiences to come. But how do I tell my younger self what I know now without ruining the story?
Throughout my twenty-plus-year career, I’ve often leveraged my ability to see things from multiple angles and move a difficult process forward. However, each time, I’ve also experienced enormous pressure to change myself in order to fit in and win acceptance of the group. Whenever I stubbornly refused to submit and play by their rules, I encountered palpable resentment from my male colleagues for believing that I deserved a spot next to them.
It’s that last part that I haven’t been able to overcome. Over the years, my career has felt like climbing a steep mountain without the right gear whilst my male colleagues are invited to use the automated lift.
After two decades of struggling against this friction, I’m weary. I’ve started to wonder if I could belong better somewhere else. As I reflect on the past and plan for the rest of my career, I’ve thought a lot about my younger self as she’s about to attend that first big meeting. I think about what I’d want to say to prepare her for the experiences to come. But how do I tell my younger self what I know now without ruining the story?
She’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, still dreaming about the grand potential of her future career in the nation’s capital, even hoping to someday work at the White House. She aspires to help reduce the risk of nuclear weapons by working at the highest levels in the US government. Would she understand why I’ve decided to dramatically change course and pursue a career in TV and film production instead?
I’ll never forget the day that signaled the end of my government career — though it took a few more years to build up the courage to leave it behind. My boss threw an article written by two of my male colleagues at my face. By this time, I’d earned my PhD, collected nearly two decades of experience, and become a bona fide nuclear weapons expert. I’d also just returned to my home organization after working at the Pentagon for three years where I had advised senior defense officials about threats posed by nuclear and biological weapons.
My boss was angry because a senior defense official at the Pentagon had called over and requested a briefing on the proliferation risks of nuclear energy. He had requested me by name. I wasn’t surprised. After all, he knew me well from my three years at the Pentagon and valued my expertise. Why wouldn’t he ask me to do this?
But standing in the doorway of my office, my boss seethed with rage at that notion. The article he’d just thrown at me dropped to the floor. He hissed at me through gritted teeth. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
It’s not the implied threat of physical violence or my boss’s harsh words that I remember most. It’s the real reason behind his anger that remains seared into the back of my brain — the idea that my male colleagues who’d written a five-page article somehow deserved this opportunity far more than me. Why shouldn’t I be the one to brief him? Not only did I have the experience, I’d earned a doctorate on nuclear weapons proliferation, which my two male colleagues had not. Even as my emotions imploded, I shrugged at my boss, daring him to stop me. “Well, he asked me to brief him, so I’m going to do it.”
There’s a big part of me that wants to spare my younger self the painful struggle of belonging, but not being accepted, for two decades. Would it be helpful if I told my younger self this story along with many others? Would she even listen? She’d probably have to learn the hard lessons for herself — mostly thanks to the stubborn gene inherited from her father. She’d say that I sound cynical, jaded, and old.
She might be right about the jaded part. But I’m not cynical enough to tell her that everything she’s about to do, over and over again, won’t work. Because to truly know what I’ve experienced and understand why I left government, she must travel the same road I did.
As much as I want to hop in a time machine and go back to spare my younger self many years of pain and suffering, I can’t tell her what I know to be true now. I need her to stay right where she is. I can’t have her giving up and leaving her government career too quickly. Because she’s my muse for my creative work.
Her journey taught me that I can fulfill my dream of reducing the risk of nuclear war, just maybe not in the way I thought I would when I started out. Her struggles have helped me understand there are many ways of achieving impact in national security — the secret is finding the shoes with the right fit.
There is, however, one thing I might say to my younger self while she’s standing at that conveyor belt — something that is probably useful for every young woman entering the nuclear field. I’d say it like this: “Your clothes don’t matter. Don’t try to fit in. If the shoe fits, you just need to wear it. Don’t let anyone question it. Be yourself. Wear the shoe. Lean into you.”
Dr. Natasha Bajema is the Director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks. She is CEO and founder of Nuclear Spin Cycle LLC, which is focused on producing creative content with national security impact. Natasha is also a published fiction author and has written novels in science fiction, mystery, and thriller genres.