Being different is hard but a privilege

November 2017

I have thought about writing a blog on gender equality for a long time. I am conscious that this is a very personal issue and everyone has their own views on whether there is inequality and, if there is, what we can do about it. I believe that talking about gender equality is important to move things forward and so here are some of my thoughts.

I haven’t always been engaged in the gender equality agenda. And for many years, I didn’t see what the issue was and believed that everyone had the same opportunities for development and advancement. I also didn’t think that it was fair to champion particular groups of individuals.

In recent years, I have changed my views. I am frustrated at our society’s inability to sufficiently move the dial on gender equality. I am frustrated that women are still not being paid the same as men. I am frustrated that when I go to senior level meetings in a range of industries, women are still in the minority. I am frustrated that there are still men in positions of power across the world who consider women to be inferior. I am frustrated that we are in 2017 and are still having this debate. I look at my wonderful niece and goddaughter and want them to have the same opportunities as my equally wonderful nephews and godson.

As a female partner in a professional services firm, I often get asked what it is like to be a woman in a senior role, to be ‘different’. I get asked this by women who are looking to develop their future careers and by men who want to better understand (the challenges of being in the minority).

The short answer is that in many ways being a partner is fantastic and I’m incredibly fortunate to lead the life that I do. It is professionally fulfilling and a privilege to do the work I do, working together with great people. I am also supported by a wonderful husband, an amazing family and generous and inspiring friends.

But it can be hard to be different, albeit perhaps I have always felt different. At school, I was the girl who worked hard and did well in exams when many of my classmates were socialising far more than I did. At Cambridge University, I was the young woman from a state school who studied maths, when less than 15% of the maths students were women. Now, I am proud to be a partner at a firm whose values I agree with and which employs the most amazing group of individuals. But only 18% of our partners are women.

When I’ve discussed/shared what it’s like being a woman in a senior role with other women, some of the common challenges I’ve raised have been:

  • struggling to get your voice heard in a room full of men,
  • finding it hard to identify common non-work interests with your peers, who invariably are men, and therefore finding it hard to build relationships with them,
  • experiencing frustration because a male boss doesn’t seem to feel comfortable spending time with you in the way that he does with your male peers and therefore limits your access to the same development and sponsorship opportunities, and
  • being advised to change or flex your style to fit in but your male peers are not asked to do the same.

Unfortunately, I have experienced many of these challenges.

Whilst it is important that we understand the challenges, I think it is equally, if not more, important to think about how we move forward. There are actions that society, the government and organisations can take to make change. What I want to share here is what I tell those people who ask me what it is like to be different and how I manage this in my working life.

Be proud to be yourself

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” (Oscar Wilde)

When I was at a junior stage in my career, a peer colleague was promoted and I wasn’t. That individual, a confident extrovert, was very different to me and I questioned whether I was in the right place and whether I could achieve what I wanted to. I made a pact with myself then that I wouldn’t change who I was and I’d seek be the best version of myself, a cliche I know but one I like. I have managed to stay true to this, although it hasn’t always been easy.

I believe that everyone should be proud to be themselves. It is far easier to be yourself than trying to be someone else. All of us will have strengths and we will have flaws. We should all think about how best we use our strengths. We should also think about how we manage our flaws – be honest about them, work to improve them where possible and then surround yourself with people who have complementary strengths.

Be confident to speak out when you feel something is wrong

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter” (Martin Luther King)

It can often be easier to keep quiet on issues than speak up, when you know that your view may be unpopular. It can often be easier to let inappropriate comments go unchallenged as you don’t want to offend someone, who may not have even realised that what they have said is inappropriate. I have sometimes regretted not raising an issue or responding to an inappropriate comment or action. Those moments have stayed with me for years afterwards. When I have been braver and voiced my concerns, it has often made a difference.

In a world that seems to be becoming ever more divided we need to speak out when we feel something is wrong. We simply can’t afford to do and say nothing. When we see gender bias, we must call it out. And that is true for men as well as for women.

Follow your dreams

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

We all have dreams and things we want to achieve. The best dreams are those which seem a little out of reach. It is all the more exciting and fulfilling if we can then achieve them. One of the saddest things, is when someone says ‘I can’t do that’ and gives up on their dream.

As women today, we really can achieve anything we want to and put our mind to. Some things may, still, seem slightly out of reach – equal pay, equal numbers of women and men in boardrooms, true sharing of emotional labour – but we are getting there. We need to believe we can achieve these things and keep moving towards them. By doing so, we will get there eventually. Certainly, if we don’t believe we can achieve them, we won’t. We need to be clear on what we want to achieve, voice these dreams and follow them relentlessly.

Support others to do the same

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou)

This is the simplest thing to me. We have to support others to fulfil their dreams. As women, we particularly have to support other women. This isn’t positive discrimination but rather levelling the playing field. It is inevitable that we champion those who are like us. With so many senior men, men generally have more people to be their champions than women do. We need to address this.

I love Maya Angelou’s quote above. Some people have had a hugely positive impact on me. My mum and dad who have always believed in me and gave me the courage to be myself. My maths teacher who taught himself the S-level maths syllabus, to help me to get to Cambridge University from a state school. My husband who is my biggest supporter and encourages me to follow my own path. A close friend and colleague who has supported me through the hardest times by being there whenever I needed to talk. I may not remember everything that they have done for me but I know how they made me feel – very special and cared for. They have helped me to fulfil my dreams and are still doing so. If I can do the same for others, I will be happy.

Have fantastic people around you to support you and to challenge you

“Surround yourself with only people who will lift you higher” (Oprah Winfrey)

As well as supporting others, we need to make sure that we have enough support ourselves. Everyone has good times and bad times at work and in life. In a work context, if you are a woman and your peers are predominantly male, dealing with the good and bad times can be more difficult. Sometimes it may be harder to find someone to share your experiences with and to get advice, support or a shoulder to cry on (literally or metaphorically).

Finding a group of fantastic people to have around you is essential in my view. They can be family, friends or colleagues. They can be female or male. They can be similar to you or different. What they need to have in common is that they understand you and that they believe in you, sometimes more than you believe in yourself. They will support you during the tough times but also provide challenge.  They will also be the ones to celebrate the successes with you. I feel incredibly blessed to have an amazingly supportive group of people around me. I have leant on these wonderful people at key points throughout my career and I know for certain that I couldn’t do my job without them.

Don’t give up

“If our expectations – if our fondest prayers and dreams are not realised – then we should all bear in mind that the greatest glory of living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall” (Nelson Mandela)

It’s a simple statement but we shouldn’t ever give up. The progress towards gender equality is painfully slow but we are making progress. It needs to be quicker, definitely, and so it needs everyone who believes in it to keep moving forward. Don’t get put off when things don’t work. Don’t give up, even a little bit. Those coming behind us, the next generation, need us to keep pushing forward. They are relying upon us to do so.

These may seem simple things but it is often the simple things that drive the change that we need. Yes, it’s hard to be different. But it’s also hugely rewarding and I certainly wouldn’t change it for anything.

By proudly being yourself, you can inspire others to do the same. By being brave and voicing concerns when you think something is wrong, you can change behaviours and outcomes. By following your dreams, you can achieve amazing things. We can’t do this alone though. It needs all of us who believe in gender equality to keep moving forward. By doing so, we will see change happen. And what an amazing thing that will be.

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