Listen. Learn. Act.

This has been hard to write and I apologise if my language is clumsy. This comes from a place of acknowledging my own privilege and making a commitment to listen, learn and challenge those around me.

The events of the past few weeks have shocked me to the core. I’ve struggled with what to say and how to articulate my anger – both towards the systemic racism that still exists and my own ignorance thinking it isn’t as prevalent in today’s society.

As a person with white privilege I acknowledge that I will never fully understand what it is like to be subject to discriminative actions because of the colour of my skin. I acknowledge that I should have done more to challenge these opinions and that these conversations should have happened sooner.

I stand fearlessly for inclusivity. Feminism and equality are core values I hold myself to with so much passion and emotion. I talk a lot about the need to over-rotate towards females in the workplace due to the inherent biases that exist. I haven’t done enough to over-rotate towards inclusiveness of black people and other ethnic groups.

The reality is that whilst there is a lack of representation of women in leadership positions, it’s more than likely that those women who are represented look like me. The majority of the time they will be white women.

I’ve previously used this example: an organisation with 7 leaders, 1 is a woman, 6 are men. There are 70 other employees.

Ideal world: 10% success rate of becoming 1 of the 7 leaders. In an equal workforce.

Perception: women are competing against each other for 1 role (2.8% chance). Men are competing for 1 of 6 roles (17.1% chance).

Add in racial factors to this and it is even more disproportionate. 

So what can we do?

There isn’t an instant fix to undoing years of racism, but there are small steps we can all take to move in the right direction. Continue to educate ourselves, continue to challenge other people and seek out ways to be actively anti-racist.

Personally and professionally, I’m committing to paying attention to who I pay attention to. Making sure that all the beliefs and behaviours I hold as a feminist transfer regardless of skin colour. This means paying particular attention to industry events that I attend and making sure that they include racially diverse speakers. This means making sure I’m highlighting black women as role models. This means recommending books by black authors, podcasts by black speakers, films/video by black producers and businesses run by black people.

We have to all take responsibility for holding the world accountable and elevate black people so that we provide equal representation. We need to make damn sure that black men and women feel as though have as much chance of achieving leadership positions in the business world as white men and women. We all need to work to make that happen and provide opportunities.

As a feminist, a woman and a human who experienced discrimination/prejudice because of my gender, it would wrong and hypocritical not to be proactively driving change to reduce and eliminate systemic racism. Don’t turn a blind eye thinking this isn’t your problem. Listen. Learn. Act.

Mental health, feminism, kindness and the workplace

Disclaimer: This article is written from my perspective and experiences as a woman. It is not intended to be exclusive or put forward the idea that females are the only ones with mental health issues – that’s a whole other topic. I’m also not a mental health professional so this is not intended to be professional advice. I implore you to speak to someone qualified if you are reading this and struggling yourself.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week and the theme this year is ‘kindness’. It’s important. We need to talk about it.

I have a lot to say on mental health generally, it’s a topic close to my heart and if you’ve been following my content for a while (or know me at all) you’ll know that I’m passionate about feminism. Back in March, I wrote an article for International Women’s Day that was very emotional and touched on why or how we are saying the right things, but as a society we are failing to remove inherent biases that exist between men and women. In the article I also mention the importance of displaying kindness to other women. You can read it for the finer details because I need to try and keep this piece as concise as possible. This does form a nice segue into today’s topic: the importance of kindness within the workplace to help reduce mental health pressures for females.

As women in the workplace there are often unique situations and feelings we have to combat, especially if you are in a male dominated industry. It’s something which I’ve felt throughout the last seven years but only recently have started to understand it for what it is.

Starting out there were immense feelings of intimidation which resulted in stress and anxiety. This was no ones fault (except, maybe, our entire history as humans), it was down to the fact that there were a lot of men with very strong characters and very few women. I should point out I had some phenomenal women as role models within my immediate team and as managers. The thing is when you’re starting out you feel as though you need to prove yourself. Prove you can cope. Prove you’re not ‘weak’. Prove that you can do what men can do.

You don’t talk about that constant fear of not being enough and feeling so out of place in the role you’ve worked so damn hard to get to. Impostor-syndrome sets in, sleep is interrupted and emotions run high. To an extent, the desire to prove yourself can act as motivation – I thrive in high-pressurised environments – the problem is it can quickly become imbalanced. How do you recognise when to stop so that the anxiety and stress doesn’t interrupt your sleep and cognitive function?

As you progress, or certainly as I have, in your career you find ways to reduce the feelings of intimidation. My confidence grew as I did and I found techniques/methods to help me along the way – you can read about how I learned to assert myself in the workplace here. I don’t think the feeling of being an impostor ever really leaves you, but you can often find ways to quieten that inner voice that tells you that you shouldn’t be here. That’s when you really start to feel performance pressure. It isn’t enough to simply fit in and be able to do your job anymore and, to quote Taylor Swift, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man”. The reality is for many women – based on my personal conversations and experiences – the anxiety around needing to perform is often coupled with frustration and stress that no matter what they do, a man would get there quicker. It’s a never ending cycle.

Then comes the women against women. There are limited amounts of women in leadership positions – for example, on a team of seven leaders, let’s say one is a woman and the rest are men. Like it or not this gives the perception that there is only one role for a woman at that level, vs the six for men. So, even if you have a gender equal workforce, the aspiration of that workforce is not necessarily equal. It may have started that way but our unconscious biases creep in due to lack of representation. It creates the feeling of competition amongst women, instead of amongst the whole pool of employees. Going back to the example : instead of all 70 employees (35 female, 35 male) aspiring for one of the seven roles – a 10% success rate – you end up with 35 women aspiring for one role (2.8% chance) and 35 men aspiring for one of six roles (17.1% chance). While this may not be the reality, the perception that this is the case is everything. Inadvertently, it can make women feel like they are competing against each other which can produce even greater feelings of being alone, instead of the ally-ship and camaraderie that we should be experiencing by supporting each other.

FYI, I work with and am friends with some of the most kick-arse women around and am SO lucky to be part of a group of truly inspirational people that really do build each other up.

So how does this link to kindness?

Well, the reason it was chosen as this year’s theme is because kindness is an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging. It helps reduce stress, brings a fresh perspective and deepens friendships. Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity and help boost our self-esteem.  Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism. If we can remember to show kindness to women in the workplace and build genuine friendships, maybe we can help reduce some of these pressures, stresses and feelings of anxiety. If we, collectively as women, can come together and support each other  then maybe we could increase our collective confidence, lessen the feeling of being alone in these thoughts and break through some of the inequality in the workplace that still exists.

It’s not a cure-all/fix-all solution but it is a step in the right direction.

Remember if you are struggling with your mental health you should talk to someone – some great resources can be found at the below links:

Why passion is important

There are three reasons why passion is important in the workplace:

  1. It means you genuinely care about success
  2. Provides an internal motivation
  3. It is outwardly obvious and gives you authenticity.

Too often people, particularly women, can get caught up around skill sets and knowledge when it comes to applying for jobs or deciding on next steps in their careers. The thing is though, I’m a firm believer that every opportunity you take should teach you in some way. You need to be learning and to do that you need to take on roles/responsibilities that are beyond your current experience or skill set. This is where passion comes into play.

Story time: once upon a time I was a student applying for my first internship. I studied Psychology at university but attended a university renowned for business, so there was a huge focus on getting an internship. They would put on career days whereby companies would come in, tell you why you should work there, talk about the application process and give you freebies. Nine out of ten companies told me not to apply for a role in marketing or PR because I didn’t study business. Oh, how I wish I had a crystal ball at that point in time to show them where I am now. More fool them though, it gave me such a fire in my belly and that’s when I first used the phrase: you can teach me anything you need to but you can’t teach someone else to have my passion.

I didn’t work for one of those companies – nor would I want to work for a company that judged me solely on my choice of degree. The thing is, it’s my passion that keeps me going when things get tough and I think that’s the same for most people. When you truly care about something it makes it personal for you which gives you a whole different level of motivation to do the very best you can. It means that you care about the outcome for whoever or whatever you are working for – a company, your clients, yourself. At the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather with someone who genuinely cares and is going to try their best to get the best outcome?

Now onto the third point I make – authenticity. Now more than ever people want to make connections with other people and brands that represent their own passions/values, even if it’s a B2B engagement (I bang on about this a lot, I know). Thing is, when you’re not passionate about something people can tell. If it isn’t something you believe in at the core of yourself then it is damn obvious – unless you a very accomplished actor in which case maybe you should rethink a career in Hollywood. From a personal branding perspective, investing in causes that you are passionate about will draw people to you. You’ll radiate enthusiasm and that person wondering whether or not to invest in you, will feel that. You’ll be remembered and even more so, remembered for the feeling that you evoke in other people.

Obviously there are occasions where skills & knowledge have a greater role to play and by no means am I trying to say that passion is all you need. But next time you’re weighing up whether to go for a job, take on a new project or client, ask yourself if it’s something you’re passionate about. Because if it is, chances are you’ll make it your mission to learn all those skills that are required, you’ll immerse yourself fully into the role and do everything you can to better yourself & the outcome for that client/project/company.

How to assert yourself in the workplace (virtually or not)

I had initially written this piece before the lockdown but actually, now is a great time to try out some of these techniques and build your confidence from the comfort of your own home. It can be less intimidating to speak up when you’re not physically in the room with the people – a baby step for asserting yourself.

A regular discussion I have with my friends and women entering the workforce is how to assert yourself in the work place – particularly if you work in a male dominated industry. Throughout my teenage and young adult life I had part time jobs ranging from being a lifeguard and swim teacher, to being a student ambassador at university. These were roles which needed confidence and, at times, a thick skin. The comments I received as a young female lifeguard, particularly from men, were horrendously sexist, uncomfortable and humiliating. I will never forget one occasion where a group of (I would guess early twenties) men decided to break almost every rule the pool had, whilst hurling comments at me about how much water would it take to make t-shirt see-through and if I would give them mouth-to-mouth if they pretended to drown. This was loudly. In front of the rest of the fairly full swimming pool and café area. This was a defining moment for me though – I could either breakdown or I could ask them to leave the pool and centre due to continuous rule breaking and harassment. I went with the latter and when they refused, the duty manager was called and dealt with them. They were banned from the centre for life.

It’s not a pity story. This was the moment, aged 16 or 17, that I realised I had a voice that I had every right to use. It was this moment that I started to develop my passion for feminism and, without knowing at the time, was the catalyst for me wanting to do more to help women.

Flash forward to 23 year old me starting my first role as a graduate in a male dominated industry. I worked in a mixed team but the sales team I was aligned to was predominantly men – very strong-minded and confident men. I felt so nervous to speak up in meetings and very under-qualified. I didn’t know how to gain that confidence to speak up and give my opinion. I admitted this to someone I worked with who told me that I had valid opinions and needed to assert myself more.

Well, from that point on I did everything I could to make sure I had something to say and no matter how uncomfortable I felt, I pushed myself to be more assertive. The key was making sure that what I said was well founded and thought out – it simply isn’t enough to say something for the sake of it. Five years later I was described as “fearlessly vocal with well positioned opinions” and now find myself advising other women on not letting the fear keep you quiet.

But, how? I thought back to my time as a lifeguard and realised that the reason I felt able to assert myself was because I knew my stuff, I knew I had the backing of the senior staff, I was there to do a job and I knew it wasn’t right. And from that realisation, I was able to pull in my learnings and form three top tips:

  1. Be prepared: ahead of each meeting make sure you take some notes around the subject area and do some brainstorming on topics that might come up. If there is an agenda start to think about what you know around each point. If you know and have a good relationship with the owner of the meeting, reach out for more clarity if you aren’t sure. If your manager is going to be on the call you can also ask them for more information – a good manager should be supporting you. Then, once you have some notes, reassure yourself that you have got this. Half the preparation is telling yourself you can do it – you were hired for a reason and that reason is for your knowledge, experience and opinions. Even if that is different to your peers – diversity is a recipe for growth.
  2. Get an ally: someone you know can back you up in the meeting or, if you’re struggling, open the floor up for you to speak. This person should be someone you trust and can be totally honest with. It can be someone you overtly speak to before the meeting for guidance, advice and to let them know your thoughts ahead of time. If you’ve prepared for the meeting beforehand why not chat about it with your ally – “I was thinking about that meeting on Wednesday about how to increase our awareness in this area, what do you think about expanding out to try this tactic…”. Sometimes just having a person you trust in the meeting/on the call can help give you that confidence to put yourself out there.
  3. Challenge yourself: set yourself a goal of volunteering one idea at an upcoming meeting, tell a friend and then ask them to hold you accountable to it. This way after the meeting, they’ll be expecting you to let them know how it goes. Being accountable to someone else can really help you push yourself out of your comfort zone. They don’t need to be big challenges to begin with – start with meetings you’re more comfortable in first of all and build yourself up.  

The final piece of advice I can give you when you’re feeling out of your depth is get to know your co-workers. Building a relationship with people, finding out if they have children, what their hobbies are, what they’ve been up to at the weekend etc. can make them seem more human and less intimidating. It’s much less scary to talk to people you already know because they value you as a person.

Do you have any other tips?

A slightly more personal & emotionally fueled approach to content for IWD 2020

This year I have really struggled with what to write about for International Women’s day – something which I don’t normally find hard. I feel like while we’ve made great progress in some areas to bring about gender equality, in others we are going backwards. I am beyond conflicted in my feelings around the subject and sometimes it is as though we are all saying the right things but the actions of society generally, aren’t reflective of the opinions we are voicing.

There are phenomenal programmes & organisations set out to help get women into technology, science, leadership positions, on boards, into management, into maths. We have incredible female role models that are speaking out on these issues – Emma Watson, Taylor Swift, Lizzo, Chidera Eggerue and Jameela Jamil to name, frankly, not even a fraction of them. Personally I feel so fortunate to be at a company where my employer is actively trying bridge the gaps that exist. And this is great.

But it isn’t enough.

The last 12 months I have felt more angry, upset and disappointed than proud of how women are spoken about. I have conversations with people who express thoughts that women are being offered jobs over men purely because they don’t possess a penis – and this has been implied towards myself. I see men in bars/on the street/on the tube/in the supermarket objectifying women. I see and experience men in a club who think they have a right to touch you. Cat-calling still exists and people make far too many damn excuses for it. “Take it as a compliment”. No, thank you.

Disclaimer: I know not all men are like this and I fortunately have some bloody good ones in my life, but this DOES happen. Too often.

And then there is the media.

There are three dates that stick out to me this year. Three dates which have fueled my emotional feelings towards this topic and why I feel the need to express my feelings here. 8th January, 31st January and 15th February; the day Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they would step down from their royal duties, the day the Taylor Swift documentary, Miss Americana, was released and the day Caroline Flack was reported dead by suicide, respectively.

All three of these women have experienced personal attacks against them by the media, relentlessly. They have been criticised for their appearance, who they’ve dated, their personality, their fashion styles and for just being them. Each of them have experienced seriously dark thoughts because of the nasty words printed in major news outlets.

Meghan Markle; to the point her and Prince Harry have decided to step back from their senior roles within the Royal family. A decision which cannot have been easy yet one which has mostly been blamed on Meghan – I’m sorry but since when has Prince Harry ever been the type to do what he’s told, he’s the cheeky younger brother after all. Meghan has been criticised for not wearing tights, then wearing tights – SERIOUSLY.

Taylor Swift; in her documentary, talks about how dark her days became – how she literally disappeared for a year because she thought that’s what people wanted. The hurt and the darkness she felt from the words being posted online, the fact that she had her heart broken and would be publicly slut-shamed for “dating yet another guy”.

And then there is Caroline Flack; while there are recent events that caused her to be flung into the spotlight (I’m not here to speculate on these as no one knows what actually happened that day), Caroline received over 10 years of personal attacks from the media. Again, related to who she was dating, the fact they were younger than her, that she hadn’t settled down and had children. She was labelled as boring. Her appearance consistently criticised.

And then she committed suicide.

These are just three examples of how badly women are treated in the press but sadly there are many more. It’s not just the outwardly negative comments that get made either – it’s the constant referral to women’s outfits when they turn up for interviews, it’s the commenting (good or bad) on their appearance when they turn up to events to speak about seriously important topics and it’s the inability to write articles that praise women for their talent without automatically defaulting to looks.

This can’t be right?

How can we expect equality in a world where the main sources of information so are so inherently bias in their coverage of women?

Even beyond traditional media, social platforms house equally vile, sexist and damaging comments towards females. Women tear down other women whilst sitting behind the safety of a screen. It is not okay.

Every single person has a responsibility to show kindness and to help undo the bias that exists in society between different groups of people. International Women’s Day is not about putting women over men, it’s about equality. So, regardless of gender, be the force for change. Challenge people’s bias comments. Challenge the nastiness. Support women, because yes, it is needed. The world is so bias towards men that we NEED to over rotate the focus onto women, we need to help women make it into tech/science/leadership roles so that we can live in a more equal society.

And we need to support each other, not tear each other down.

To all the other women out there, I hope you feel valued and if anything, take a chance today to say thank you to a woman who’s made a difference to your life.

To my best girlfriends, thanks for being my unconditional cheerleaders.

Disney Princess X Feminism

Disney is a brand that I have adored ever since I can remember – films, parks, characters, TV shows, clothing, toys, games – you cannot deny that it is one of the biggest global brands out there. Aside from the nostalgia and care-free escapism that the world of Disney provides, there are 2 main reason why I love the brand so much:

 1 – It was created by one sketch, of one mouse, by one person

2 – Their stories address political events/issues and have evolved with the times

It’s the second one I want to focus on here and the role of female characters within their films. If you take a look back at the films specifically, you can see the evolution of feminism throughout, how a brand has adapted and modernised to recognise changes within society (albeit some of the terminology/storylines are not PC in today’s world).

From Disney Princess to Disney Heroine, let’s start at the beginning…

The 30s & 50s: the damsel in distress

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (release date: 1937) was the first Disney film to be released. The premise of the story is that Snow White is deemed so beautiful she is a threat to the wicked queen. She’s then exiled into a forest before being rescued by seven miners and lives in a cottage with them – by this I mean she cleans and cooks for them. Once the evil queen finds out she is still alive, she hatches a plan to poison her and does so successfully, with the spell only to be broken by a kiss from a prince. Obviously only a prince can save her and this theme continues in two other films that Disney produced during this era – the first of which being Cinderella (release date: 1950). After Cinderella’s father passes away she is mistreated by her wicked step mother and sisters. That is of course, until she meets a handsome stranger in the woods and her sole focus is making it to a ball to find him, her Prince Charming, to rescue her and set her life right again. Some may argue that she was a gold digger – seeking the rich, handsome man to pull her out from her poor living conditions (although not forgetting she was technically born into riches). Perhaps in a positive light, Cinderella shows great strength and resilience through surviving the tough experiences. The final damsel in distress comes in the form of Sleeping Beauty (release date: 1959) a film where the title character has only 18 minutes of dialogue in a 75 minute film. In reality, it is more so about three fairies who try to protect the princess so that she can be saved by her true love’s kiss. Yes, another film where the saviour is a man after an evil queen puts a spell on a princess because she is too beautiful.

These stories are all products of their time. I don’t have anything against them, I loved them growing up and I still do – but they aren’t about strong women that I find myself aspiring to. Each story is centred around a real damsel in distress who needs saving and this reflects the role of women in society during these periods and more so, during the periods the creators grew up in. Snow White was released just twenty years after women had won the right to vote and at the beginning of World War 2 where it was more common for the men to be shipped off to war. Even during and after the war, men were still the main breadwinners of the families and many women were still housewives – leaving the family home to marry a man, take over household duties & raising children. Women with careers would see themselves sacrificing their work to be the primary care giver. Strong, independent female role models were rare – they did exist but they weren’t as widely known or as frequently found – so perhaps for a lot of women, these characters were people to aspire to be like (or at least provide some much needed escape from the realities of the world at that time).

The 80s & 90s: the rise of the female lead

1989-1998 releases saw a shift in the portrayal of lead female characters with more focus around their own actions within the films and less so on the need to be rescued. The Little Mermaid (release date: 1989), which just to caveat is one of my all-time favourite films, is about a young mermaid who is always exploring the ocean beyond where her father wants her to. She rescues the prince after he his knocked overboard, fights for independence and the ability to make her own decisions, albeit she does turn into a human to be with her prince leaving her family behind in the ocean. Even so, it is a definite move away from the prior films and shortly after we were presented with two more princesses Belle & Jasmine from Beauty & the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) respectively. Let’s start with Belle, she actively seeks out her father after he goes missing and is captured by a beast (who is actually a prince under a spell), she volunteers to be held capture by the beast in place of him. Although her character and actions are centred around being with the Beast/Prince, Belle fights for what she believes in – a life more full of adventure than the path that her father expects her to take and is another hint at a stronger female lead. Next we have Jasmine, another strong-willed character who fought the life her family wanted her to follow of marrying a rich Prince. Instead, we follow Jasmine’s journey of finding someone who loves her for who she is and supports her in her adventure. Jasmine has a prominent role in the film despite not being a title character and arguably being the third lead after Aladdin and the genie which is a testament to the strength of personality.

Just a few years later, Disney released Pocahontas (release date: 1995). Pocahontas was the first truly confident lead female character. She was self-assured, strong, independent and fighting for change. This was the first time Disney gave girls everywhere true strength in a character that they could aspire to. Pocahontas didn’t base her happiness on a male companion but on preventing war and defending her culture. Followed shortly by Mulan (release date: 1998), this was the second major female lead that had her own story and happiness independently of love interests. After the Chinese emperor demands that one male from each family goes to war, Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to prevent her father from being sent away. What’s interesting about Mulan is that in order to gain the respect as a heroine within the Disney world she has to pretend to be male, but ultimately it is her bravery and determination that proves her a strong character. Another success for Disney and another positive role model for young girls. The development of these characters across the 1980s and 1990s is reflective of the increase in strong female role models and the shift in women’s roles during these time periods. Feminism as a term was starting to be used more commonly, women were taking control of their careers, to be successful in their own right and start to breakdown the gender imbalances within society.

The 00s onwards: the era of the Heroine

By the 2000s, Disney had redefined what it meant to be a Disney Princess. The evolution from damsel in distress to strong, independent characters had happened and there was a new generation of princesses coming:

  • Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) – the ambitious waitress who was working hard towards her dream of owning her own restaurant but also wouldn’t compromise her moral values just to achieve her dream.
  • Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010) who despite being trapped in a tower was smart, confident, independent and fearlessly passionate about pursuing her dreams.
  • Merida (Brave, 2012) a courageous young woman with a passion for archery who, when she makes a mistake works tirelessly, to put it right again.
  • Moana (Moana, 2016) a teenager who is seeking her own purpose and identity in life but also manages to be a real heroine, saving her village.

The new era princesses provide girls with ambitious, courageous, confident, educated role models that reflect the ever growing concentration on feminism, equality in the workplace and ensuring that all girls are given opportunities to participate in activities/careers/experiences that may have previously been considered only for boys.

Disney isn’t perfect, but their development of female characters over the years does demonstrate how the world of feminism has evolved.

When I was younger I would always say, “I want to be a Disney Princess but a bit more kick-arse”, now those characters exist and hopefully we’ll see this evolution continue and help young, aspiring girls. 

P.S. I got all the dates from IMBD and their complete list of Disney releases:

P.P.S. Thank you to my colleague and friend Phil for encouraging me to write this again after a discussion in the office.

This blog was first published November 2019, available here.