International Women’s Day – An Occasion to Savour
International Women’s Day – an occasion in which the bright and brilliant woman that change the face of business daily – is almost upon us. As always, I consider this to be one of the most significant dates in the calendar. It is my ambition that, someday, people throughout the world will feel the same way.
For me, International Women’s Day is not limited to a country or a company – it belongs to everyone everywhere. It’s a day to celebrate women all over the world for their strength and achievements. In order to do this, we need to start making some real changes to the way women are viewed and treated in the workplace. Progress is not just a buzzword – it needs specific actions points to strive toward.
The sad fact is, despite awareness of gender inequality in the workplace arguably being at an all time high, we are further away than ever. The latest World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report for 2020 claims that we are 257 years away from closing the gap. Last year, it was 202 years. What are we going to do change this?
Right now, less than 5% of CEOs at S&P-listed companies are female. I fully support the idea of the best person for the job, but are we truly supposed to believe that 95% of the posts are unsuitable for women? Bias – whether wilful or subconscious – continues to hold women back. This is unacceptable, and it’s time for everybody – women and men – to acknowledge that this is a problem.
Ask any senior management figure and they will likely share a passionate view that the best candidate should always be a frontrunner for opportunity. Sadly, so many still battle with subconscious bias each and every day.
That, for me, is at the heart of International Women’s Day. This is a day to celebrate women and their achievements, in every field – and to encourage the next generation of women to achieve everything they are capable of. 2020 is the 100th anniversary of women being entitled to vote in the USA, thanks to the 19th amendment. We need a similarly seismic change in attitude and direction now.
Celebrate Women – and All That Entails
In 2019, I attended the LEAD Network Conference. A number of things from that event resonated with me, but there was one teaching that stood out in relation to International Women’s Day. Women do not need to act like men to succeed in the workplace. Do not change who you are, or how you relate to your staff, because you have seen men successfully behave in a particular way. It’s the culture of the corporate world that needs to change, not the women that work within it.
International Women’s Day might not get as much publicity as Mother’s Day or many other celebrations, but it is a very special day in our household. I’ll read one of my favourite bedtime books to my three young children, including my son, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo.
Beyond stories, there are many powerful films that empower women. Some of our favourite movies featuring strong female characters are Moana, Brave and Frozen, which are easy ways to participate in the day and inspire my children. I have also decorated my children’s walls with images that remind them of their own worth such as quotes from famous women.
Some people may read this and sigh. Frozen? Really? Well, I have three words for those people – let it go! In time, I have no doubt that I will be introducing my children to the work of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and similar iconic figures. For now, I’m delighted that the leading character of their favourite movie is a strong woman with superpowers that confronts those that would bring her down, rather than hiding in a castle and waiting for a handsome prince to save her.
There is a lot to be said for such a popular, four-quadrant film aimed at children breaking the mould in this way, and I will always support my children enjoying that particular message.
The Spirit of Healthy Competition is No Bad Thing
International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911, but it has only recently begun to enjoy mainstream recognition. I was not aware of it as a child, but I was certainly imbued with the spirit of the occasion. I grew up believing that girls could do just as much as boys.
I was a competitive swimmer throughout my early life, and my coach didn’t treat the boys any differently to the girls. We never thought we could achieve anything less as women – because we couldn’t. Sport may not be for everybody, but it was a hugely important part of my personal development.
Competing taught me personal accountability, and that if I wanted to be best, I had to work for that. More importantly, it taught me that hard work paid off. Every hour I spent practicing in the pool was reflected in my competition performance. Right now, that isn’t the case in the boardroom.
Maybe we should take a lesson from sport in this sense. When I was a swimmer, I backed myself to perform at a standard that would match up to any competitor, male or female. I am not saying that I would have beaten the boys in a direct race, at that stage in my life. The boys in the equivalent swim team were organically more powerful, that’s how biology works.
Here’s the thing, though – success in the business world is not based on feats of physical strength. Nobody ever won a major contract in the workplace by winning an intergender weightlifting contest. Like so many other women, I back myself to show my abilities in the workplace when given the opportunity. My swimming coach gave me the opportunity to prove myself. I want the same in my corporate life.
Early Experiences Shape Women’s Lives
This discussion reminds me of my schooldays. I remember doing courses like textiles and cooking. I’ll be blunt – that was not for me. It wasn’t my area of interest, and I drove my teachers crazy asking why I had to learn how to use a sewing machine. This was not a skill that was going to be reflected in my career choices. I knew that then, and so it proved to be! Do you think those 95% of male CEOs I mentioned earlier sew their own buttons on their shirt? Maybe I’ll be surprised, but I’m willing to wager that they don’t!
I should note something here, too – my brother never had to do a textiles class at his school. It wasn’t a case of an outdated curriculum, where we all suffered equally. This was reserved for the girls. Cooking classes were equally frustrating to me. They could have been more interesting if they had taught us to bake something challenging – and teaching it to both boys and girls. Instead, it was a was class for girls only, and we were restricted to the most basic of recipes like scones. From a personal perspective, my Dad was a French patisserie chef and starred on the Australian TV series, Beat the Chef. This made the cooking menu even more dull.
Now, I attended an all-girls Catholic school. I could not have attended the same courses as the boys of my age, even if I wanted to. Looking back, however, I find these core differences in the curriculums to be very telling. There was no opportunity for girls and boys to test themselves against each other, and to learn from each other – even indirectly.
As mentioned, I grew up with a brother – and I consider myself lucky in that regard. We could discuss what we learned together. Even so, we could not compare and contrast our experiences based on direct correlations. It was very much a case of sliding boys neatly into Column A, encouraging them to be the future captains of industry in the world, and girls on Column B, cheering on the boys and speaking when spoken to.
We are living in a world that’s so diverse with females and males, so I felt grateful I had competitive swimming and that I was internally motivated to do well at school in order to get opportunities later on in life. I grabbed the chance to complete my college education in America on a sporting scholarship – to get a free education and discover new cultures and surroundings, both in and out of the pool! Perhaps growing up with parents from disparate backgrounds helped with that. While my father is French, my mother is Australian.
At school, they also had very strict policy on school uniforms – jumpers could not be worn without a blazer, socks pulled up until the knees, etc. I remember one teacher giving me detention because I wore a jumper without a blazer. He saw me get off the school bus and I outran him across the school field. Alas, he recognized me. I later received my one and only school detention, “for not wearing a blazer.” The authorities must be alerted at once, I was sparking a one-woman crimewave! My parents wrote to the school to exempt me because there was no way I was going to waste my time in detention when I had swimming practice every day after school and competitions to train for. I had my parents full support.
There is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for my upbringing. My parents never treated my brother and I differently by assigning us stereotypical roles – and more importantly, they never placed a different caps on what they believed we were capable of based on our gender. My parents drove me to swimming practice to be in the pool every morning at 5am, and every evening after school until I could get my driver’s licence to handle my own transport. That played a major role in the woman that I grew up to be, and now that I have three young children of my own whilst working full-time, I am so grateful for the lessons and opportunities they provided me with. I often wonder how they did it, but it gave me the strength to replicate that level of dedication and support.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I did not have that support. Would I have been indoctrinated into a traditional ‘female’ role, not questioning the sheer lack of equality? I like to think that I would always have acknowledged these discrepancies, but it’s like I said before – it’s the world that needs to change. The minds of young people are like sponges. They absorb the culture they live in. We need to ensure that these life lessons are appropriate and help people achieve everything they can. Shoehorning people into roles based on their gender helps nobody.
Inspiration Leads to Perspiration
Growing up as I did, conscious of the world around me, led to a questioning mind. I had to look a little deeper to find my personal heroes. Barbie’s Dream House and sports cars were cute and all, but I was looking for somebody with a little more substance to draw encouragement from.
The former – and first – female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, is a personal inspiration to me. Gillard served office from June 2010 until June 2013. Throughout her career, Gillard has always believed that women should empower other women either via formal mentoring or by supporting each other. She also believes that women must be represented equally at all levels of society, business and government.
In October 2012, Ms. Gillard received worldwide attention for her speech in Parliament on the treatment of women in professional and public life. The words that Ms. Gillard used still resonate with me – and I am thrilled that she now has her own podcast, in which she converses with equally inspiring and intelligent women. There are more female role models out there than ever before, which bodes well for the next generation.
In addition, there is a passage from Ms. Gillard’s autobiography that I often turn to in times of duress.
“I suspect there was nothing original about my journey, but it led me to a quiet, but firm belief: that this mortal world is it and our measure as human beings, is entirely defined by what we do within it.”
I could not have said it any better myself! We are all human beings, and ultimately, we should all be striving for the same things. Happiness, success, and equal treatment and respect for every single person that enters the workplace.
Make Changes Today for a Brighter Tomorrow
This International Women’s Day, my biggest hope is that that far more women will be able to break through the glass ceiling. This will lay the groundwork for the next generation to follow. Although we have made progress, there is still so much to do. I have no personal aspirations to make it to the C-suite, but I want to look at a company organizational chart and not see middle-aged white males dominating every role. We live in a diverse world, and that should be reflected in the boardroom.
Yes, hire the best people for the job – but that will always include a cross-section of backgrounds and experiences. I want to see women and ethnic minorities in these positions, ensuring a genuine representation of our global business practices. The younger people that will eventually need to take on these roles need role models and mentors. That means seeing people that they can relate to reaching the upper echelons of the business world.
I would encourage women to read the literature and making themselves aware of gender bias. As a result, I hope they are aware of, and prepared for, the challenges that will arise as a result. Remember, it will take 237 years to close the gender pay gap. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I am not prepared to wait that long.
I would also embolden women to be brave. Speak up if you see inappropriate behaviour; show your colleagues that you acknowledge their struggle. That goes for men too, though. We all need to pull together and build a better world. Together, we are stronger – the more of us speak up now, the less likely it is that such actions will be accepted by the next generation.
I advise anybody to join a network with women and men like LEAD, and to know your worth. Do not allow yourself to be pushed off-course or demotivated by people who criticize you. Believe in yourself. Remember, it’s easier for somebody to criticize and attempt to pull you down than to lift themselves to your level. Be better – and hope that you can inspire these individuals to do the same.
Even if you have been wronged by ignorant or mean-spirited colleagues or superiors, do not find yourself dragged into a conflict. As the quote from George Bernard Shaw advises, “never wrestle with pigs. You get dirty and besides, the pig likes it.” Instead, I like to draw on a quote from a legendary woman that I previously mentioned, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. If we all form a united front, anything is possible – and we will all thrive.
About LEAD Network Europe
The LEAD Network Europe is a non-profit and volunteer-led organisation whose mission is to attract, retain, and advance women in the consumer products and retail sector in Europe through education, leadership, and business development. The LEAD Network is run by and for its members, women and men, and we value every individual for their unique perspective. With a primary focus on promoting gender equality the organisation strives for the advancement of women of every race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, educational background, national origin, religion, physical ability and lifestyle. Its vision is of a fair, diverse and vibrant industry where everyone can thrive. A diverse workforce where both men and women are enabled to contribute their full potential and lead their organisations to the next level of value creation. LEAD Network accounts for 15,000+ members – both women and men – from 81 countries.
For more information, please visit www.lead-eu.net