An analogy. If you were running a race you’d expect everyone to start at the same line, to face the same number of hurdles, and have the same starting time. In a fair and equitable society, that’s how it would be. Then everyone could compete according to their own ability, and we would have a genuine meritocracy. Unfortunately, in the race of life we all start from different points. This was the crux of our discussion in Porter Novelli Brussels in our lunchtime TED Talk session to honor International Women’s Day 2019.
We gathered together to watch ‘I’ve lived as a man & a woman — here’s what I learned’ by Paula Stone Williams, a funny and insightful exploration of Paula’s experience in transitioning from male to female, and the things she discovered about the privilege she had as a man that was denied to her as a woman. From simple things such as the loss of pockets in clothing (seriously, preach – why is it so hard to put pockets in women’s clothing?), to the more serious aspects of not being believed in ordinary situations, and being treated as ‘less than’ in both personal and professional arenas.
Paula raised the important fact that “you don’t know what you don’t know”, meaning that unless you know to look behind you when you’re starting the race, you don’t know how many people are starting from a more disadvantaged position. The old adage that you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes applies here, as it’s impossible to recognize the privilege you are gifted with unless you demonstrate empathy and try to understand the obstacles that others have faced.
Our group of 6 men and 5 women talked openly and frankly about our experiences and understandings, from being faced with a client that dismissed a competent woman with the words “What does that Barbie doll know about business,” to the seemingly non-malicious everyday comment on whether a female colleague is wearing makeup on that day or not. We spoke about the inherent privilege that comes with education, with being born into a certain race, or identifying as a specific gender. The privilege that none of us would normally think about until faced with the question: “What is it that I don’t know?”
I recognize my privilege as an educated woman, one who was encouraged to believe that I could achieve anything I wanted to, academically, professionally, and personally. I have had a stable family life, I have a good job, working in a field that I enjoy, with enough disposable income to enjoy my life. However, I am also a woman of color, which comes with it’s own barriers. But I feel that after our discussions today, my wonderful colleagues have the tools to question whether we all started from the same point in our race to get where we are today.
PN Brussels employees also celebrated International Women’s Day by submitting a photo of a woman that inspires them, with a short piece of writing to explain why they found them inspirational. The women could be real, fictional, alive or dead – and in one case figurative, as a colleague submitted a picture of ‘Mother’ Earth. The submissions are now proudly displayed on a wall in the office (our Wall of Women – or WoW).
Happy International Women’s Day everyone. Celebrate your great women, and they will celebrate you.