Choose to Challenge is the campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day – on the basis that a challenged world is an alert world. The organisers are highlighting that, individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequity. We can choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. “From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge,” the campaign urges.
It’s a theme that certainly resonates with me in my day-to-day work. And it also makes me think back to some of the challenges I have chosen to tackle during the 20+ years since I first set up my diversity and inclusion training consultancy – perhaps my personal campaign theme should be Choose to be Challenged…
In the early days, for example, I was asked at the last minute to speak to a conference in London with an audience of eminent women from the Middle East. With only 20 minutes’ notice, I was terrified. The easy way out would have been to politely decline the offer. Instead, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and hid in the restrooms for 10 minutes to quickly sketch out some thoughts – yes, it really was last minute!
The outcome was a standing ovation – and a line formed of women wanting to speak to me afterwards. My company was then awarded a contract to tour the Middle East on behalf of the UK government and I still have letters from the women we inspired – and the men who saw things differently from that time.
I think I probably inherited the “choose to be challenged” mentality from my mother who, as a single parent in the 1960s, refused to have me adopted. She was the only woman to leave the unmarried mothers’ home with her child! Not only that, but she then found a full-time job, built us a home and even had a car, which was unheard of in the UK in those days. The result was a young me who didn’t let her starting point stand in the way of her dreams.
Acquiring the skill of “listening to learn” is another important challenge I have embraced during my career. We are all intrinsically biased, but it’s possible to understand that about your programming and still practice active allyship. I began this work being very centred around my own experience of exclusion as a woman from a poor background who left school with very little in the way of qualifications. However, I soon learned that lived experience is key – hence the crucial skill of “listening to learn”. I have been lucky enough to have discovered so much about the history of specific diverse groups and the effects on their day-to-day lives of our microaggressions. Humility with power is all.
I think the biggest challenge for organizations over the next few years will be reinvention. We are already seeing the world of work alter forever, with companies forced to change to survive and bring their products and services to a more woke but, in many cases, less affluent society. In the future I think we can expect to see innovations such as virtual work campuses, for example, where my avatar can interact with those of my colleagues in real time.
The organizations that thrive will be the ones that choose the challenge of reinvention – without losing sight of the importance of encouraging employees to “choose to challenge” any kind of bias and inequity. Not just gender bias on International Women’s Day. Any kind of bias, all day, every day.