10 March 2020

During the first week in my current role, a young male outdoor instructor boldly stated when I introduced myself “You don’t look like a Head of Centre”. “So, what does a Head of Centre look like?” I asked. “For one, they don’t wear skirts and high heels!” he replied very matter of factly.  I smiled and said “Well, clearly, this one does.” Rather than take offence, I found myself more amused by his confidence than the statement itself.

Growing up in a Cypriot home in a small village in South Africa, my experiences of the difference between how girls are perceived versus boys started early. My childhood was indoctrinated with the notion that girls are nowhere near as special or as important as boys. At school, boys were taught carpentry and encouraged in science and maths. Girls were taught how to sew and cook, and typing was the subject we needed to become secretaries for important men. But there are two very specific memories I have where I started to question the imbalance. First, the day I discovered in my early teens that I was “promised” to be married to a boy I didn’t know and was told I had no say in the matter. Really? (As it turned out, the young man in question and I were on the same page. Phew!). Second, being told college was not for young ladies and my success as a woman would be defined by my marriage to a good man and children. This hurt terribly as I had big ambitions to be the next Coco Chanel!

When I left home at 17, I was ready to take on the world. I was certainly not going to let the things I was told I could not do stop me; I guess I had a point to prove. As I sat on the Greyhound bus en route to Johannesburg, I remember thinking about all the female role models I had consumed in my diet of mythology, movies, music, books – Joan of Arc, Queen Boudicca, Wonder Woman, Joan Jett, Ripley from Alien – and promising myself I would not be seen as a woman who can’t, but as a person who absolutely can and certainly will. I wasn’t naive enough to think it would be easy, and I somehow knew back then that I would have to work harder than the boys.

But I never once anticipated on that bus, that the almost three decades that followed would be littered with benevolent sexism, microaggressions, and even harassment. I have lost count of the number of times I sat in a meeting, being the only female (and more senior to the men) and was told “go make us all a cup of tea love”. The amount of times my point of view was ignored, until echoed by the man next to me (who took the credit for such an excellent idea), is astounding. The cringe-worthy lewd comments and uninvited physical contact working as a waitress is something I tolerated so I could pay the bills. When I discovered I was pregnant, I dreaded the outcome for my future at a time I was just finding my feet as a developer. I’ll never forget the day I discovered a director peer was being paid a fantastically higher salary than me, for the same job, “because of what he brings to the table”. These are all too familiar tales for so many women in the world of work.

Women in senior positions, or those aspiring to get there, face the challenges of juggling a career and family priorities. I remember the overwhelming sense of guilt I felt as a working mother that never went away, reinforced by disapproval from stay-at-home parents and (mostly) female colleagues; echoed in the workplace by rolling eyes and judgement when confronted with the pressures of childcare pickup, a sick child, nativity plays, school holidays! It’s no surprise that many women consciously choose not to progress along the career ladder, precisely because of these difficulties. This isn’t right. Nor are the findings from the recent Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) study, which includes data from 75 countries covering 80% of the population, that reveal “…despite decades of progress closing the equality gap between men and women, close to 90 percent of men and women hold some sort of bias against women, providing new clues to the invisible barriers women face in achieving equality.”

There is a certain uncomfortable logic to the argument that women are also responsible for continuing to hold themselves – sometimes each other – back. I suppose if we are taught to believe girls are lesser beings from the moment we are born, the outcome is it is likely that we will spend more time in a self-perpetuating cycle of doubt, than believing in our capabilities. This is especially so when it comes to leadership positions. “Impostor syndrome” anyone? How is it with the sum of all our achievements, we still have so little confidence in ourselves? I have always found it rather ironic that in a world where women have literally climbed the same mountains as men (Junko Tabei), became the first person ever to rack up 14 consecutive downhill MTB world cup wins (Rachel Atherton), won grand-slam after grand-slam (Billie-Jean, Martina, Serena), we are still seen – and sometimes see ourselves – as incapable.

My teenage son once called me out for being a hypocrite during a conversation about gender equality. He pointed out that if we ignore young men and don’t include them in the conversation, then they will eventually become the silent and invisible ones, and the cycle of inequality will be perpetuated the other way around. He is so right. True equality and equity need both women AND men to set the world to rights on this. Every one of us has a part to play and no one should ever sit in a cloak of invisibility and silence when it comes to the issues that matter. As he reminded me so very passionately that not every male is part of the patriarchy or a misogynist, I recollected that the most significant mentors and champions throughout my career have, in fact, been men. That’s why this year’s IWD theme resonates so much with me. “Collectively, we can make change happen. Collectively, we can each help to create a gender equal world.”

Just the other day, digging through archives, I found a reference to a recruitment advert in the 80’s for my current role, where it was boldly stated they were looking for a “top man” for the job. We’ve come a long way since then, that’s for sure. But it’s not good enough to just have female numbers showing increased diversity. Real balance and inclusion come when we are all on board the gravy train, all talking about it, all challenging each other’s stereotypes and biases to overcome barriers. I look forward to a time when a woman – or anyone for that matter – walks in the workplace and is not judged for her skirt and high heels, but rather her capabilities. Just like Ripley.