On 8th March 2021, we celebrate International Women’s Day. As millions across the world ‘Choose to Challenge’, Co-Founders Dr. Jacqui Leaman Grey and Georgina Gorman have reflected on IWD and what this year’s theme means to them:
What does International Women’s Day and the theme ‘Choose to Challenge’ mean to you?
International Women’s Day to me is a day to reflect and celebrate. We celebrate the women who have broken through boundaries and have paved the way for others. We reflect on where we have come from and how much work there is still to do. We should view the day, and Women’s History Month, as an opportunity to raise awareness of current challenges and step up to make change.
Unfortunately, it’s also a day for organisations to pay lip-service to gender equality. To post their IWD message on social media, ‘tick the box’ and feel good about themselves for the year. IWD should be a time to celebrate success, and please shout about it on social media and encourage others to do the same, but it doesn’t replace the hard work that needs to be put in all year round.
This year’s theme ‘Choose to Challenge’ means many things to me. The need to challenge is clear. Even though years have passed since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, we are still seeing politicians and celebrities unaware of how to behave appropriately around women. Domestic abuse against women increased dramatically during the lockdown. As we discussed on our blog earlier this year, 1 in 4 women were considering stepping out or back in their careers due to the pandemic. Oxfam shows a good summary of Gender Inequality in numbers here. It’s clear inequality is still an issue in our society and we need to challenge to create change.
Furthermore, the word ‘choose’ is very important. Choosing to challenge is to ‘opt-in’ to the fight. The ‘bystander effect’ suggests that we are less likely to provide help when others are present (Darley & Latane, 1968). By sitting back in the face of inequality or inappropriate behaviour, by not challenging, we make it acceptable for everyone else to do the same.
I do feel some internal conflict about the theme as it’s addressing what women (and men) can do differently but not addressing the system. Women who challenge are often labelled difficult, a ‘b*tch’ or too direct. I have heard a lot of these criticisms personally in my career, whilst watching equally outspoken men be called good leaders, insightful and confident. I chose to challenge when I left my job a year ago after hitting a ‘glass ceiling’, leaving me unemployed at the beginning of a global pandemic. Those who publicly challenge and stand out against inequality can be labelled difficult and shunned from their industries, or are subjected to hatred and abuse online. Until we address the system we operate within, the choice to challenge will always be a huge risk to the challenger.
But if we don’t challenge, nothing changes. So I would encourage everyone to choose to challenge, if and when they can. We need to ‘take up space’, to be brave in the face of criticism and barriers, and to continue breaking through them.
Like many, 2020 taught me so many lessons about my own privilege. As a white woman, I benefit from the system built by and for the benefit of white folx. In life, my skin colour leads me to have better experiences. I have never felt unsafe speaking with the police or other authorities. At work, I don’t have to hide my personality or alter my appearance to be considered ‘professional’. Whilst I face barriers because of my gender, these are fewer and different to those faced by Black women and women of colour.
For those with privilege, choose to challenge on behalf of others who are less privileged. If you are on the receiving end of challenge, stop defending. Listen and appreciate. Choose to challenge your own assumptions and stereotypes.
Most importantly, for everyone, choose to challenge the system.
Perhaps strangely, in terms of International Women’s day, I’d say not a lot! I believe we should focus on Gender Equality, Female Empowerment and celebrate our talents and differences every day not just once a year. I get that it’s good to draw attention to the debate and that more can always be done but we seem to have days for every category of person and society these days and I’m often left with a ‘what next?’ feeling. ‘International Dogs day?’ Having said that I have just discovered that a) There is already an International Dogs Day’ and b) I am writing a blog so I’m hypocritically taking part! Don’t get me wrong I love dogs and have two of my own but really?!
I think my jaundiced attitude may also be due to lockdown – in the days when we could truly celebrate with great conferences it felt like more of a celebration, a coming together of hearts and minds, a call to arms. I love celebrating with inspiring women and learning from them. We can come together via zoom or teams but everyone’s pretty fed up now with more calls in the diary. Having quality time is sometimes more precious. So, please forgive me if I am invading that space, I’ll try to keep my musings brief.
By contrast, in terms of ‘Choosing to Challenge’ I am a great believer. It’s vital that women stand up and challenge themselves, the status quo, stereotyping and poor behaviours. I have always challenged and have often been described as ‘challenging’, perhaps not always a compliment, but usually for good reason. For that reason, I welcome the use of IWD as a vehicle to have that conversation.
What has been your experience of being a woman in a man’s world? Where have you experienced equality or inequality and how has it changed over time?
We talk about a ‘man’s world’ and the ways we work and live our lives were historically a male construct. From my rather ‘mature’ standpoint (I hesitate to say old), I would say things have changed and have improved. Programmes like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Life on Mars’ gave a taste of what things used to be like back a few decades and we have made progress, but is it lip service or real change?
Organisational structures and hierarchies were set up in much slower moving times, where men made all the decisions and women did what they were told. The world is no longer like that and with each generation ‘traditional’ gender roles blur. My experiences at home, school and work are very different to Georgina’s. We can still see and experience gender stereotyping echoes of my upbringing in hers but thankfully it is reducing with each generation. My father went to work and was the breadwinner and my mum stayed at home and brought up the children, so did most of their friends. I still have friends who made that choice but not so many and almost none of my or their children see that as a viable financial option even if they wanted it today. As a young woman I was desperate to carve out my career and to be successful and I achieved a lot of what I wanted to do. I am also a product of my time and my background and I acknowledge that I was born into and still have privilege. Whilst I have had to modify to fit in to a male world, I have not had to substantively change who I am to fit in where for example systemic racism or homophobia exists. I do not have the lived experience of this and can only seek to understand as best I can through my perceptual filters.
Two experiences stand out for me as a woman in a man’s world, one personal, one professional:
As a young teenager, I spent a lot of time at rugby clubs. My elder brother was keen, I adored him and his friends and was willingly subject to quite sexist comments on a regular basis. It was ‘normal’, categorised as humour, a way of joining with others, people similar to myself. I think I enjoyed being objectified. I did not find it humiliating at all, I felt included. I learned to ‘give as good as I got’ to banter with the best of them but am left wondering if other young girls found this sort of behaviour more challenging than I did at the time? I also wonder if this would happen now? Certainly, there are more women playing these kinds of sports, and more going to football and rugby matches as spectators. Has this affected how men behave towards women or how women respond? Was it inequality or downright sexism? How does this work today? I realise my reflections raise more questions than providing answers.
Early in my career, I experienced a Finance Director constantly leering at me (and other women) in meetings. It was my first HRD role and this time I felt very uncomfortable. I batted him off day to day but was quite self-conscious in Board meetings and did not need him staring. One day, he addressed yet another comment to my breasts and I just couldn’t contain myself and looked down at them and said ‘Do you know, I don’t think they talk!’ all his colleagues laughed and he was embarrassed. He stopped and never did it again to me. My strategy worked but once again it was down to me to be tough enough to use humour to diffuse a situation that I should never have been put in. By today’s standards this is morally reprehensible and I like to think that today that wouldn’t happen but I am told by younger colleagues that women are still experiencing this type of behaviour at work.
By contrast, I have been helped enormously by men in my life and have experienced equality, I work shadowed an MD for several years and had several male Mentors. I have never been overlooked in favour of a man, paid less or felt that I have been unfairly treated just because I was a woman. I have experienced various experiences where I have been unfairly treated at work but not because of Gender. Having said that, the work I’ve done with women over the last 20 years, the research and training we do at FeForte, and compelling research by the likes of McKinsey and Credit Suisse, has definitely taught me that this is not the reality most women have at work.
I grew up in a working-class family with a huge gender divide. From the time I was around 10years old, my Dad wasn’t around and my Mum did everything alone in his absence. I learnt the value of independence and self-sufficiency from watching her fix up shelves and pay the bills. Ironically, she was the best example of breaking gender stereotypes whilst, at the same time, enforcing old-fashioned gender stereotypes in raising my brother and I. As a young girl, as I was expected to learn to cook and clean, whilst my brother would watch TV. It was normal in my family to expect the women to have the dinner on the table, whereas men needed to get a job and provide.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with splitting work and home between partners. Being a stay-at-home Mum or Dad is a legitimate, difficult role and should be treated as such. The challenge is the expectation that one role is for women and the other is for men.
Whilst conforming to (out-dated) gender stereotypes, perhaps conflicting with this was our family power structure. The women in my family were incredibly strong-willed and formidable. It could be seen as a matriarchy headed by my ridiculously stubborn, but truly wonderful, Nan. Personally, I have taken the positive lessons I learnt from these strong women, e.g. self-sufficiency and independence, whilst at the same time refusing to live by a stereotype that wouldn’t make me happy.
From this foundation, I have always been acutely aware of gender inequality. I was the tallest (i.e. biggest) person in my school for years yet constantly heard teachers say ‘Can one of you strong boys come help me lift this?’. Of course, I would elbow my way past to do it instead. I learnt that boys could annoy and hurt in the name of getting attention, and girls should learn to ‘ignore’ them. I learnt that teachers were surprised when I was good at maths (unfortunately, I let the stereotype get to me and that’s not the case anymore).
Later in life, I didn’t even consider not having a career as an option. I believe times have changed in that respect. It’s unlikely that couples can manage to afford to live comfortably (and perhaps raise children) without having both partners in some form of employment. My generation was raised by many single/step-parents and an acute awareness of divorce statistics, so it was always evident that being dependant on either partner is a major risk. Very few women I know or grew up with have actively sought to become a ‘housewife’. The old stereotype for relationships that my family demonstrated really doesn’t seem feasible anymore. Instead, women are now expected to contribute to the household finances, but yet are held back in their careers and expected to take the lion’s share of the housework and childcare.
As I mentioned, I’ve seen the glass ceiling first-hand in my own career and left a role I loved because of it. After being promised a promotion for years (a promotion to a job I was already doing), I was then told the company wasn’t ready to create that position. When I pushed back and said I might have to consider moving on if that was the case, our recruitment team was given the guidance to advertise the new role, and to prioritise hiring a man. The rationale was that our region (and the whole company) was skewed to more women and they needed more ‘diversity’. Somehow they didn’t see the hypocrisy of the Regional Director and other ‘more senior’ roles already being held by males and all the support roles being held by women.
It’s amazing how quickly a company can act when they believe that the company needs more men. I wish the same speed could be found by the multi-million-dollar companies who have goals for more women on boards in 20years time, or to increase the presence of women in STEM roles.
There were multiple factors disadvantaging me and I realised I was invisible behind my male Regional Director. I was told through the grapevine that the Co-Founder of the company thought I must have an ‘ego’ asking for the role and they didn’t like that. I could choose to stay and fight through all of these perceptions (and continue working 70 hours a week covering 90% of the revenue generated in the region) or I could take myself out of the equation. I chose to challenge for a while, but eventually for my own sanity, I left.
Unfortunately, these are just a couple of experiences I could mention. There are hundreds more. I’m sure many reading this could name hundreds of their own. We still have such a long way to go.
What do you hope for the future?
I am researching a lot into the Future of work, organisations and leadership. This takes many forms. Primarily through my work with FeForte, which I co-founded in lockdown with Georgina, focussed on the fusion of Neuroscience and Philosophy around women’s Resilience. (www.feforte.com) We are helping women build their Resilience and build new habits so they are more resourceful in the face of inequality. One of the habits is ‘build your confidence’ which is very much about overcoming our Existential Fears of being unimportant, unloved, or out of control. It is vital we do this if we are to ‘choose to challenge’ Women have to step up and be noticed. We have to challenge and take our power back. We are also working with Banks and Tech companies on Inclusion, and Breaking Bias at a systems level in deal processes and systemic change. I am Chair of the Charity Treesisters, which focuses on women’s empowerment and climate change via ‘Feminine Nature based Leadership’ and how it is now time for new ways of leading others and raising consciousness. I am looking at Holacracy and ‘Teale organisations’ (See Frederick Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, available in short illustrated form for those short of time). Read ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bergman. Much of what is being espoused is about things more commonly associated with female strengths. The idea that people are innately kind and seek to help each other, that people may be trusted to lead in self managing teams, that people will operate from an agreed set of values if given the chance (and surely we were shown that in lockdown).
I would like to think that I might live to see a day where the world is not concerned with issues of difference, not because privileged white people ‘don’t see it’ but because prejudice no longer exists. I hope we will actively focus on Inclusion of everyone, not how women are different. I hope there will come a day when we don’t have to have ‘women’s programmes’ or ‘women’s days’ because we just are equal and included. We will connect with all people authentically for who they are, not because of what they represent. Where everyone is given equal opportunity to be the person they want to become. We know that paternalistic approaches previously taken to ‘shift the needle’ in organisations has not worked. At least not quickly enough. According to the World Economic Forum in 2018, if current rates of progress were to be maintained in the future, the overall global gender gap will close in 61 years in Western Europe, 74 years in LATAM and the Caribbean, 124 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and a whopping 165 years in North America! That’s just too long to wait.
The world is changing – apocalyptic climate change, famine, disease and pandemics on an unprecedented scale, economic crises and wars – the time for talking is over. We must ‘choose to challenge’ and become the role models we want to see in the world. We must transform as people and remove systemic inequalities in organisations and across the world. Let’s think big Ladies!
The system needs to change. Whilst we are focusing on gender here, it cannot be forgotten that we live in a society riddled with white privilege. Even the history of Women’s rights and Suffrage are steeped in racism, white women fighting for white women. A statistic often quoted around equality is the gender pay gap, but only the stat for white women is regularly referred. The statistics for Black women and women of colour are even worse. Inequality is just as present outside of the workplace, with life-threatening consequences. In the UK, Black women are four times more likely, and Asian women are twice as likely, than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth. The system is built on gender and racial inequality and it needs to change.
Honestly, if the idea of changing the system scares you, it’s probably because you already benefit from the inequity, whether you feel comfortable admitting that or not. We need anti-racism. We need to abolish gender stereotypes. We need to rebuild without starting from the template of ‘White, Cis, Middle/Upper-class, Heterosexual, Non-disabled, Male’.
I believe the concept of binary gender is outdated. I have spoken about ‘Males’ and ‘Females here but that distinction is a misnomer. The concept of gender is treated as synonymous with biology and that’s just not the case, gender is a societal construct. ‘Gender’ exists as a spectrum. You can identify as either gender, both genders, neither genders, or be fluid on the spectrum. We discuss gender as a binary because we are addressing inequality those who present as ‘women’ face. When this inequity is removed and everyone is treated as an equal, we will no longer need to be concerned with how people identify on the spectrum.
Some people argue against the idea of ‘International Women’s Day’ asking ‘Where is International Men’s Day’, my sarcastic answer is that everyday is International Men’s Day whilst living in traditional Patriarchal societies. The real answer is November 19th. Please don’t use IWD as an opportunity to stamp out the voices of women in the name of ‘special treatment’.
I hope in the future we won’t need a day to celebrate women’s achievements because they are celebrated equally every day. We also won’t need to raise awareness of gender inequality because it won’t exist anymore. It’s my mission to get us to that time, faster. At FeForte, we support women to build their resilience. I believe with every woman we speak to that’s able to ‘stay in the game’ and believe in herself, we take a step towards a more equal society.
Today and everyday, I’ll choose to challenge.