We’d bumped into each other in a Melbourne cafe. I was waiting for a friend and she was in town for work from Sydney.
I didn’t tell her at the time but I was having a moment.
It was just after International Women’s Day and for the first time in 20 years I hadn’t marked the event with a celebration.
I’d lost faith in my gender.
In the months prior I’d been “thrown under the bus” by women I’d been trying to collaborate with. They’d gone around me, undermined my authority, and disappointed me time and time again when I’d done my best to be authentic and helpful whilst also explaining the reasons why we do the things we do to give people a voice, and the challenges my team were facing into.
I’d asked for compassion, mindfulness and understanding and been a little heartbroken by the responses I’d received.
A chance meeting with this woman who was at the top of her field in her organisation and within the market inspired and empowered me to keep fighting for my gender and underrepresented people.
She shared stories of what she was doing in her organisation to raise the profile of women, and the work she was doing in the community to encourage women to succeed.
When I walked away from that encounter I was encouraged to recommit to my values and keep pushing for equality.
She went on to eat her raisin toast not realising, until I emailed her later, the profound impact she’d had on me in a brief 20 minute conversation.
Here are my five personal commitments. They’re small but I believe they have impact:
1. Listen to and learn from the women who have come before me
It’s easy to forget the fights that have been made by the people who have come before us.
For instance, my mother had to quit her job when she married my father in the 70’s because it was expected that now that she had a man to pay the bills, her position should be handed over to someone who needed the income (i.e. a man or single woman). She was also encouraged to leave school in grade 10 even though she was a straight A student.
Later, when my father fell ill she became the sole earner in our family. She did so many things to support us including cleaning houses and ironing. Had she gained a university degree or continued in the workforce after marriage, she would have had other choices.
Because of her and women of her time, I now have the privilege to choose my career path based on my interests and not what society tells me my gender is allowed to do.
Women have fought for our right to vote, receive an education, use birth control, gain access to maternity leave and equal pay.
We have so much to learn from them. My commitment is to honour them and ask questions to hear their stories and to be grateful for the path they’ve paved for me.
2. Raise up other women and give them a voice
Without question young women are still facing into gender inequality. Schools are still not setup to give girls the best possible learning environment and fewer young women than men enter into higher education, particularly within highly coveted STEM programs.
How that plays out in the work environment is that often women (and less confident men) don’t speak up in meetings, and go unheard.
Notice the quieter people in the room and encourage them to have a voice.
Large meetings may not be the best environment to give these people an opportunity to speak up. Find out what will encourage the quieter people in the room to share their opinions, thoughts and ideas (ask them what will work for them).
It’s worth it, as the quieter members of a group are often more thoughtful, evaluative and data driven than those who are more extroverted.
Personally I do this by providing staff with regular one-on-one meetings so I can hear their thoughts, and I provide them with surveys and idea boards which allow for anonymity and the opportunity to be heard.
3. Support my peers
Choose collaboration over competition to ensure progress.
There’s nothing wrong with having differing opinions, in fact if everyone in a room agrees it’s a sign that the room is lacking diversity.
Support your peers by asking questions to understand their viewpoints. Encourage them to have a voice. Let them know you have their back and best interests at heart.
Look out for your peers. See them, hear them, and notice when they’re having a bad day and need someone to ask if they’re okay.
We’re in this together and our success depends on everyone being heard. What we know about the future is that it will require us to collaborate more across the market.
4. Bring everyone along and don’t forget men
This week I was discussing some things I was doing to support diversity and a female leader in my organisation reminded me not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
It was an important point because while we’re flying our purple flag, pink washing our marketing and bringing our true selves to the workplace we can confuse and displace men without meaning to.
For instance, even though I’m all about girl power I still appreciate men who let me in and out of an elevator first… (quite frankly I judge men who don’t as having bad manners) and I am often moved to tears because I measure at the 99th percentile on empathy scales. The impact is that often men don’t know whether they’re coming or going and so I remind myself to be thoughtful and kind towards the men in my environment. They need it too.
I work in Human Resources, a field that is underrepresented by men and I often notice the impact being the only man in a room full of women has on them. They need support too, and permission to bring their masculinity into the room in a positive way.
And so, as I commit to learning from more senior women, empowering young women, and supporting my female peers I make that same commitment to the men I work with.
After all, we’re all in this together and every voice has a right to be heard.
5. Keep being me
Every now and then someone tells me that I’m brave and it always surprises me.
I ask myself why is it brave to share my opinion, ask a question, or offer a differing viewpoint?
Sometimes, someone in my team will surprise me by telling me I inspire them. What they don’t know is I question myself often. (Am I being too much? Do I speak up too often? Is my passion stopping others from speaking up and challenging me?)
What I know is that on the days I choose to wear make up, its like putting on war paint because I am feeling a little vulnerable that day.
When I put on a bright dress, it’s my version of a suit of armour as some days I feel as if I’m going in to slay metaphoric dragons through the work I do on behalf of the underrepresented groups I serve.
But I also know that when I bring my true self to work, and allow myself to be vulnerable and real it allows and encourages others to do the same.
They’re my commitments. No matter what I promise myself I will keep moving forward towards a vision I hold dearly of a more equal future.
Every day when I walk in to work I see a young indigenous girl in my mind’s eye. She’s seven years old and I know that I am fighting for her future. I want her to see role models who inspire her, have friends who support her, and one day I want her to inspire future generations to reach for a brighter future.
You can too.
Be brave… I believe in you,