At first I felt honoured. I had been invited to participate in an event designed to celebrate the success of women in business. It would shine a light on women from different industries and the highlight was the panel I had been asked to participate in. My fellow honourees were well respected and the motivation of the event organizer was unquestionable. I agreed without hesitation.
I felt anxious whenever I thought about the event, and I couldn’t figure out why. As a champion of women and gender equity this should have been a no-brainer. Every woman chosen to be at that event deserved to be there – make no mistake about it. Then, it dawned on me.
Raising a glass to celebrate women is important. My personal discomfort grew from the fact that we would all share the stage and the same skin color. Should I walk away from this celebration? For a week I wrestled with the decision.
In the end I kept thinking about the pictures that would be taken. Of us together on stage, representing women in the business community. Pictures that would be used to promote future events; pictures that would live on in social media; pictures that would prevent non-white girls from seeing their future selves represented as successful businesswomen.
The fact was, I could easily think of successful, ‘celebration-worthy’ business women that did not look like me. A few minutes searching regional businesses produced more women that I was not aware who might be great candidates for this celebration. If, between my network and a low-effort internet search, I could find a dozen potential participants who did not share my skin colour, why couldn’t the group planning this event?
Mind made up, I politely declined and explained why I came to my decision. I also included the names of the women I thought could be included in the event. The celebration went ahead, without a single non-white women being recognized.
At the time I felt that there was no impact. My disappointment was was only outweighed by incredulity. Even after calling attention to the importance of recognizing successful women from a variety of backgrounds, they still went ahead without including a single woman of colour. All I had done was give my seat to another woman who looked just like me. Not a damned thing had changed.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, I planted a seed. If even just one member of that planning team thinks differently about who to invite at their next event – that was worth it.
Having said no once, I trust that I can use my voice to engage with organizers immediately about the importance of representation – that was worth it.
And the uncomfortable conversations I have had regarding this experience; the recognition that to be an ally means more than just offering support, that it means saying no to opportunities and stepping aside to give that opportunity to someone else – that was definitely worth it.