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What I learned from a night with feminists: 4 tips on breaking barriers

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Last night I went to an event at the the newly founded Global Institute of Women’s Leadership at Kings College.

The panel was hosted by Julia Gillard, the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of Australia and included the first female editor in chief of the Guardian Katherine Viner, Zamila Bunglawala, Deputy Director, Strategy and Insight, UK Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit and Joanna Ludlam, partner at law firm Baker McKenzie, and in 2016 was named as one of The Lawyer’s “Hot 100” for her practice.

It was refreshing to hear such candid experiences from women who are at the top of their respective field – while their industries were varied – from politics to media to law, the message all around seemed to be: yes, things have improved for women, but we still have a long way to go for women to be represented in leadership positions and to reach the same parity which men have in their careers.

This isn’t just rhetoric either.

According to global data, women make up only 23 per cent of parliamentarians, 26 per cent of news media leaders, 27 per cent of judges, and 15 per cent of corporate board members.

The number of women in senior management positions virtually stalled in the past decade, only going up by 1 per cent – from 24 to 25 per cent.

I know in my own career, it felt the higher you climbed, the less women I saw around.

Working in news and government for the past 12 years before starting my business, I had my own moments. It could be as subtle as not feeling as though I could say anything in male dominated meetings ( and when I did, I was regularly talked over or dismissed) to dealing with inappropriate comments and behaviour from male colleagues.

More common though, was the attitude towards me as a woman - not as a professional - which leaked out in various ways.

Off the cuff remarks such as: ‘don’t worry your pretty little face about it’ or a manager commenting to me and my female co-worker we were ‘nattering in a mother’s group’ while we were in a private discussion (hint: neither one of us were mother's) - were little stabs, discouraging me from thinking at times I had a valuable opinion or contribution to make.

This happened in every single job I had, from when I started my career to managing my own team.

So, it was refreshing to hear women at the top of their respective fields share their own stories and how they navigated careers that were more male dominated at the top.

A range of issues were covered, from unconscious bias to agile working, online bullying, maternity leave, to the perception of women in leadership positions.

While the #metoo movement has brought about another strong wave of feminism, it was clear that this momentum can and will only last for so long – it’s up to us to ensure that it’s not just a conversation happening, that we support and not compete with our female counterparts.

I know I would not have made the strides in my own career had it not been for the mentoring and support of a few but incredibly able female mentors in my own life.

While some companies are more progressive in their approach to female employees (27.5% of the Guardian's staff work flexibly), the vast majority of organisations and companies were built by men and for men - and aren't open to experiment with different ways of working.

One of the interesting points addressed was British politeness – it was talked about how we need to ‘confront’ sexism when it happens – even though the British art of diplomacy would usually go against such behaviour. Culturally, it’s a difficult shift to make – but we must make it, if we are ever to see real change for the next generation.

I took away four lessons from these trail blazing women last night:

1. ‘Lift as you climb’ – we can’t treat this issue as an individualistic issue (it’s not just about you!). Mentor, support, collaborate and share what you have learned. It’s an unfortunate common experience that women can be toughest on women. Get out of the competition mindset, if you do well, I do well.

2. ‘Be Brave’ – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Challenge yourself to get uncomfortable, put yourself in situations that make you socialise and network, even when it’s not your ‘thing’. One of the panellists was the first in her firm to be a partner who worked part-time. She simply asked if she could and didn’t assume to know the answer.

3. ‘Challenge as you work’ – one of the quotes of the night for me was ‘the greatest quality of a leader is to invite challenge’. This is tough. But don’t expect culture changes if you aren’t willing to call out behaviour publicly yourself.

4. ‘Make a decision that excites you’ – as women, we love to plan. But sometimes we can get stuck in the ‘what if’ scenario and trying to make career and business decisions based on the good for everyone. Just ask yourself ‘ does this opportunity excite me?’. If yes, just go for it. Nothing is permanent, so take the pressure off yourself – and just go with your intuition.

The event was just another reminder of how incredibly supportive women can be, and once we allow ourselves to open up about what’s really going on, what we face and how we face it - it is so liberating for other women.

"Feminism isn't about making women strong. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength." —G.D. Anderson

Find out more about the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership here.

If you want to see an example of empowering bravery: watch Julia Gillard’s famous speech where she calls out misogyny and sexism most brilliantly - in one of the most memorable moments in Australian parliamentary history.

Rachel Reva is a success coach, global media strategist and writer. Sign up to my mailing list and receive a free guide: Create an UNFORGETTABLE elevator pitch in 5 minutes.

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