This year’s theme for International Women’s day, “Choose to Challenge”, is one I’m struggling with.
Let me share why…
I was born in the mid 1960s in an environment that can only be described as culturally regressive and oppressive. I spent my entire youth challenging society and cultural norms, facing discrimination and sexism. I had to deal with misogynism and what women’s place was in society – education to high school, arranged marriages and living with the all-powerful in-laws.
I also had to face the inequality within my own family between my brother and myself. Yes, as the son, he was and still is the golden child, and can do no wrong.
There was a silver lining. My father believed in education and sent me to Australia, where I chose to stay via marriage to a white man – once again choosing to challenge and defy my family and society.
The next challenge was facing corporate Australia as a woman of colour. There were no culturally diverse role models in the 90s and what you can’t see you cannot aspire to be.
I remember the times when there were only a few women in Government, in the C-Suite, where no one ever talked about diversity and inclusion, or targets and quotas.
In the early 1990s, if I was spoken to or touched inappropriately, there was never any recourse or support available.
I remember walking down the streets of Melbourne with my partner at the time and people would stare at us… a white man with a brown woman.
In the early part of my career I always assumed that women like me would never reach heights of leadership as there were very few women of any colour in leadership roles.
I chose to step up and I chose to challenge, I became so good at what I do that it was hard to ignore or overlook me. I used all my grit, determination, and bravery to ask for what I wanted.
Soon I found my self being a “first and only”, and the burden and responsibility of being this. I knew that whatever I did or said would be amplified. That however people perceived me they would perceive every other woman of colour to be the same.
In time I learnt to set boundaries and call out inappropriate behaviour, but I quickly realised that speaking out caused backlash. I was branded ‘too sensitive’ or told I ‘perceived things the wrong way’.
Over the past 12 years in Corporate Australia the dial has moved forward, there is no denying that. However, the pace of the movement is too slow. Many women my age who are steely from all their experiences, have become the role models they didn’t see, are now stronger and more in number.
We have been joined by our daughters and our sons! Our voices are stronger, we are a force to be reckoned with.
Despite this, I am tired of challenging. I want to see deliberate changes, made by leaders who know that diverse workplaces are the future of work. Leaders who understand that their businesses must reflect the communities they work and live in. Many culturally diverse women who work in organizations are often the first or only woman of colour.
To the leaders out there, none of this is hard. It is also the right thing to do. So yes, let’s challenge. But, instead of choosing to challenge for tiny return, we must choose to challenge for a return far greater than what it has been to date.
We must choose to challenge for more.