Today is International Women’s Day.
As my business grows and I meet new people, I get asked about the role gender plays in running a business, and the difficulties and obstacles I face as a woman in the workplace.
The answer I usually offer is that when it comes to business, I don’t want to define my entire work philosophy around my being a woman. I focus on my work as an individual who gets compared to peers regardless of sex. That said, my gender has a profound effect on how and why I make decisions, personally and professionally – specifically in terms of luck and power.
I won the female lottery
I was born into an environment that raised individuals, not girls. I grew up around ideas of equality, financial independence, and freedom of choice. I was surrounded by strong female role models in my family: business owners, professionals, and war heroines. I knew women were capable of doing absolutely anything by watching my mom raise two children in foreign countries on her own.
By virtue of travel, good education, and exposure to unusual childhood experiences, I knew very well that I was among the privileged group of women who possessed an education, had access to proper health care, and consequently the chance of having a prosperous future.
That was luck.
Competence is power
I like to believe that the professional workplace is where meritocracy comes to full effect. You may say that’s naive or negligent of the statistics that prove gender equality is largely a myth. And I would be in agreement with you.
Personally, I have never been in a position where the caliber of my work was questioned because it was provided by a woman. In my opinion, competence levels the professional playing field – which is why I don’t feel intimidated or unequal when I walk into any business situation. That’s where I think my professional power – if we call it that – comes from.
In the wee hours of the night
Recently I attended a networking event that provided new business opportunities. At one point, I looked at the time and realized I had to start making my way home. I had a long commute ahead of me, which required walking through isolated parking lots and along poorly-lit pathways. There are alternatives that would take any worry out of the situation, but that added sense of vulnerability had a real effect on my business. I delivered the line about turning into a pumpkin at midnight, and made my exit earlier than I might have because of a small paranoid voice in my head that has me in a constant state of readiness.
I know the statistical likelihood of getting attacked by a stranger, particularly in a developed country with historically low crime rates, is extremely low. That said, I’ve been in situations where I experienced cruelty for no other reason than being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky is the only way to describe it. Vulnerability is not tied with a location, time of day, physical strength, state of mind, or manner of dress. It has everything to do with power*, and the perceived loss of it.
When I find myself in an unpredictable environment, unlike the workplace, I shift from a confident and powerful individual to one who is subject to the basic instinct of self-preservation. I don’t like admitting that, but to claim otherwise is disingenuous.
One day that voice may go away…
Today we celebrate women, worldwide. What do we do tomorrow? How do we have a future where luck plays no role in determining a woman’s quality of life? How do we shift power from a mechanism that exploits the uneducated, disadvantaged, and vulnerable to one that allows everyone to be the best person they can be?
I strongly believe that education is and has always been the key to end social injustice.
Teach women maths and sciences as well as their reproductive choices, encourage the exploration of their sexuality and allow them to deliver on their full potential. At the same time, teach everyone alike to respect the choices that women make with their minds and what they do with their bodies, and learn to see the value of what they produce as individual free-thinkers.
Maybe then the voice would go away, and there will be no more questions about the role gender plays in and outside of business contexts.
*Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will explores the relationship between power and vulnerability as it affects women everywhere. I strongly recommend this book for both men and women.
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