I’ve said it before, and I hope to be able to say it always! I love my job. The last week culminating in International Women’s Day, March 8th, has been such a buzz. I have had myriad opportunities to reflect, listen and learn about women’s equality.
I started last week sharing a platform with the amazing Ihron Rensberg, former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, leading an inclusive leadership session for on personal power and influence in a volatile world with King’s Senior Management Team. The middle of the week was co-hosting the D&I and Global Institute of Women’s Leadership International Women’s Day Inclusivity at King’s event and last night we launched Elevate, the new King’s Gender Equality network. Sadly I wasn’t there as I had a long-standing night booked out with my own personal ‘network’ – 9 women who I count as sisters and my mum.
Fittingly enough we were at the theatre seeing 9-5 – Dolly the musical.
Then on Sunday I watched RBG, a lively documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the US Supreme Court Justice, whose work transformed the legal landscape for women. All through this I have been reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming – which has provided a daily dose of wisdom and inspiration as well as reducing me to tears on every commute. If you haven’t read it, stop everything NOW and go buy it.
Last week I opened the Inclusivity at King’s event with a passage from Ms O – page 284 for those interested. The event featured many, many amazing #womenofkings (check it out on twitter or on our intranet) on the platform and in the audience. The two that impacted me most were Professor Funmi Olonisakin, King’s Vice Principal (International) and Tessa Harrison, Director of Students and Education.
Funmi combined her academic field of expertise with personal insight to inspire women in the room, while Tessa shared incredibly honest and personal reflections about her own struggles to come to terms with how her feminism is perceived. The entire room showed what really listening to each other with a willingness to learn can do and how that can help us deal with our 21st century equality challenges. The event closed with me getting the thrill of sharing a platform with Julia Gillard as she talked through why we as a society would want to do the right thing for diversity. Now that was a real career high!
My thoughts really crystallized watching 9-5. For those unfamiliar it is a musical based on a film that features 3 female office workers and their male chauvinist pig boss. It was originally made in 1980 and is on at the Savoy Theatre now. Some might think it’s a parody, it is funny and light but also incredibly uncomfortable to watch and realise that this was the reality for many women. These 3 women each compete with and snipe at each other – resenting and judging each other for looks or status while all being demeaned, diminished and held back by their boss and work place standards.
I was a teenager in the 80s. Many of my friends that I was at the theatre with were young women in the workplace in the 80s, as obviously was my mother. They all recognised the play as being what was normal then. We reflected that we are grateful that in many places that things have changed. Watching RBG provided further evidence of how far we have come – as a result of so many fighting so meticulously and vehemently to get here! We can take heart that looking back it really is unbelievable what the norms were, and I wonder what my daughters (26, 24, 15 and 12) will think when they look back on this time? What will they will find scary, hilarious or unbelievable? However, testimony at our own International Women’s day event tells us we haven’t yet reached nirvana – women at King’s still experience gender-based discrimination, making it hard to make our lives work so we can succeed professionally and balance our other commitments.
Putting Michelle Obama, Ihron Rensberg, IWD, 9-5 and RBG together, I have been inspired by how positive people have been about King’s and the many practical suggestions. I have been reminded that to make change we need to follow Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s lead of working step by step and see the big picture and we need to start with ourselves. We must understand our own identity, we must think about what we want and how to get there. We must recognise how we have been socialised, what privileges we carry, which ones we acquire. This takes work. This can be uncomfortable and scary. 9-5 reminded me that I have had to work hard to shake off a learned behaviour of judging other women (and myself) by the way they look, by other’s opinions of them, that these tropes are patriarchal norms that I have absorbed. These breed unhealthy competition, they breed fear and suspicion – yet when we open our minds and our ears, when we listen respectfully and reflect and work collectively, collaboratively we achieve so much more.
I ended the Inclusivity at King’s event urging people in the room to be vocal and demanding. We here at King’s, women in the UK, in London experience some challenges but we have also achieved so much progress in gender equality but that isn’t consistent at King’s and it certainly isn’t something women everywhere enjoy. Change comes when we notice and agitate. Lets all play our part in making the world a better place with by never settling for less than we are worth. As my pal Michelle says, “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
When in doubt – ask what Michelle Obama would do!