What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
I consider myself lucky enough to live in a country that largely supports women’s equality. Celebrating International Women’s Day means we give thought to women elsewhere in the world not so fortunate.
It somehow seems strange that we have to focus on one gender to ensure equality. Essentially I see myself as human being first, and a woman second. In that sense, we are all equal. Yet society puts different constructs dependent on our gender.
International Women’s day challenges us to remember that women still have a long way to go before they are considered equal with men – in the eyes of the law and society.
Basic sanitation, education and dignity are denied many millions of women the world over. I would like to see a world where everyone is equal. Where we celebrate difference whilst recognising our equal worth as human beings.
What have your experiences been as a woman in business?
As women we’re expected to behave in a certain way in business – the unwritten rules of organisational politics. Like most women I have experienced discrimination on the basis of my gender. From my early career, where I was asked about my plans for motherhood in an interview, through my corporate career where I was told I would never get a promotion because I didn’t wear the right clothes.
That said, I have also not subscribed to stereotyped behaviours or expectations because of my gender. By celebrating my own unique style and eschewing career enhancing behaviour, I am comfortable being me.
Often, I would attend international business meetings where I was one of, at most, three women out of a sea of dozens of men. Similarly, I was one of three female delegates of 21 on a year-long Executive Development programme. None of these experiences phased me because I focused not on my gender but on who I am as a person.
It can be tough sometimes to work in business as a woman, however, the male bosses I have worked for have, without exception been truly amazing. And it was down to all of them that I enjoyed a corporate career that was both challenging and opportunity laden. They demonstrated faith in my ability to do my job. This inspired me with confidence and lead me on the path to my current job – working in my own business with an amazing female business partner.
Even though I had some tough times in my corporate career, I would advocate taking an opportunistic approach and not getting too attached to one particular outcome. We can’t change the context but we can change how we see it!
In what ways have you led change in the workplace?
One of the concepts I write about and aspire to is ego free coaching. Getting out of your own way and being in service of others drives me to be better. Naturally, that makes it hard to answer this question because I believe that no one person leads change in the workplace.
Organisations are complex by nature, and whilst we all make a difference, it would be arrogant to take full credit for changes. Change is not a cause and effect; many small actions create change. Sometimes outside our awareness.
The roles I’ve performed have had a leadership aspect to them – either through title or action. However, I have found without fail that if you invite others to step up they will do so. This also means being willing to challenge things that aren’t working and stepping out of my comfort zone.
There is a concept called servant leadership which I really like because it encapsulates my philosophy. Taking a stand when something isn’t right is also one of my core values and I’ve done this many times too.
Leadership in business as a concept is overrated. Leading on the other hand is undervalued. Anyone can be a leader, and as women, this is empowering.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
For me there is an underlying assumption of fear in this question. Fear is one of the biggest hurdles most women find hard to overcome. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of failing. Fear of not being taken seriously. One of the biggest risks I took was leaving a job that made me physically sick. At the time, it meant I would be completely dependent on my husband, in a foreign country, with no family and few friends for support.
I knew in my heart that in the long term it would be the best decision but it was scary and meant facing some hard truths about financial dependence.
Four and half years later I am enjoying working in a growing business with a fabulous friend and business partner. We both love our work and share similar values (and sense of humour). Yes there are still challenges but the thrill of working on your own business and developing services and products you love and believe in made the risk worthwhile.
Sometimes doing nothing is the biggest career risk of all.
What stereotypes/assumptions of women in business would you like to see broken?
This is a great question and could be the subject of a book on its own! So here are my top three favourites:
All women are emotional or empathetic
I have yet to see compelling scientific evidence that supports this assumption. Yet, it is amazing how many times in my career I have heard it said that women are better at dealing with emotions at work. Or the opposite, that women are too emotional for certain types of jobs.
I have seen many men in my career displaying emotions at work – both productive and unproductive. Similarly I have seen many women displaying lack of empathy and poor interpersonal communication.
We are human beings, we have to work at relationships and that includes those at work. Some days we will have less tolerance for our colleagues than others, and sometimes we’ll have less emotional control. Let’s stop perpetuating the myth that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’.
Women leaders will naturally support other women in the organisation
There are probably studies that explore how women support other women at work. Again, this is another myth – that women feel some sort of natural propensity to support other women. In my experience, as women progress in organisations, they start to align with their peers. In most cases, these groups are mainly made up of men. Therefore, their behaviour towards other women in the organisation maps onto to how men at that level also behave towards women.
Social proofing and group think are powerful forces that affect behaviour at a subconscious level. Expecting that women can somehow miraculously circumvent the system of which they are part is both unfair and doomed to failure.
We need to find ways to make it ok to support other women – and this is both a social and organisational challenge. It’s much easier to create organisations than it is to change them. Let’s not make this is a problem that only women can solve. Let’s make this a challenge for human beings to solve.
Women are the main care-givers
Studying sociology at school meant early exposure to gender politics and the sociology of family. Biologically men and women are different, granted. However, in our ‘advanced’ society it is still woman who are the main ‘care-givers’. Usually whilst juggling a career, household and umpteen other things women are ‘expected’ to do.
Caring for others should be gender neutral. Some countries are better at this than others (Scandinavian countries seem to have some workable solutions). Biases help us make decisions by filtering out unnecessary information so that we focus on the challenge at hand. They also lead us to make false assumptions and close off options that could be more beneficial. So let’s work on exploding the myth that women make better care-givers and roles assigned based on gender.
Which women inspire you? (Personally and/or professionally)
How to choose? Personally my maternal grandmother was a great inspiration to me growing up. She was always so cheery and easy to talk to. She had an iron will and never let things get her down. Sadly no longer with us, she still inspires me subconsciously in my determination and drive.
Professionally, my business partner never ceases to inspire me with her ability to absorb many pieces of data and work through the hard stuff till completed. Her ability to juggle the business as well as support her family is both heart-warming and affirming. She reminds me of what my Mum must have done for me.
My co-author Gillian also inspires me with her confidence and self-belief to just be herself and trust her own ability. From the first time I started working with her I have never ceased to be amazed at her capacity to work and deliver.
Truly inspirational women – not ‘insta-famous’ or celebrities, but real people who inspire me every day.
What advice would you give to young women entering the world of business today?
The business world is a dynamic place even more so than when I entered it back in the ‘80s. My advice would be:
- Be clear what’s important to you
- Be yourself, at the same time, recognise you’re working in an organisation that has certain unwritten rules. Make sure you can reconcile these rules with what you value.
- Never give up – see each set back as an opportunity.
- Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do – they’re not you. Only you know what your true potential is.
- Remember it’s people that matter. Don’t become so attached to a job that you lose sight of what really matters.