A Pledge for Parity – International Women’s Day speech for InterNations, Brussels

IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.  IWD has been observed since the early 1900′s – a time of great expansion and turbulence in the industrialised world that saw booming population growth and the rise of radical ideologies. International Women’s Day is a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity and I was delighted to be asked to deliver a talk on behalf of Internations Brussels.

Speech for IWD

Good evening, everyone. Thank you for your attention. I have been very excited to speak with you this evening on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “A Pledge for Parity”, because gender parity is something I feel very passionately about.

Global statistics show that women hold approximately only 20% of government seats and less than 20% of executive officer positions. The World Economic Forum has shockingly predicted that at the current pace of progress the gender gap would not close completely until 2133.

We cannot wait 117 years for our boardrooms to become balanced. The gender gap is a symptom that stems from our unbalanced classrooms and unbalanced lives. Lack of balance is evident in the way we have robbed our planet of her resources and have collectively conditioned ourselves to run our lives as if we are competing in a race. Our non-stop lifestyles are forcing us to routinely run on reserves and are resulting in the widespread experience of exhaustion and burnout.

Ever since I was a young girl practicing Karate in a male-dominated dojo and became the first female black belt in my club, I have been aware of how much more difficult it is for a woman to reach the top level of achievement within an organisation. I was fortunate to have the support of encouraging parents who instilled a belief in me from a young age that I could achieve anything I desired to accomplish. I approached my academic studies, extracurricular achievements and career pursuits with an ambitious mindset and never allowed my gender to hold me back in terms of my self-belief or entitlement to an equal level of attainment.

However, as soon as I became a mother, mid-career and mid-thirties , I found myself being challenged in order to balance motherhood with my work pursuits and I began asking, can I really have it all?

The term ‘having it all’ was first coined by pioneering editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown. She passionately believed that women were entitled to a great career, family and love life – which of course, we are! I have attended several conferences and events where the topic of women being driven by a constant pursuit of ‘having it all’ has been explored in open discussions between speakers, panelists and delegates. I conversed with Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild personally on this topic in an interview for the Power-Up Coaching community.

As women, the greatest gift we give to those we work with is our instinctive caring nature and ability to view situations in a rounded and holistic way.  Our inner guidance is a powerful source that provides us with creative solutions to problems, whilst providing new inspiration and the energy to implement our ideas.

The moment we become mothers we begin performing a daily balancing act and come up against continuous external pressure to over ride our intuition and neglect the wisdom of our bodies. The result if we disconnect from our inner knowing? We go against our maternal instinct to care for our children, struggle to stay present to our desires and instead force ourselves to run on reserves in order to meet work-life demands.

While I believe it is possible to ‘have it all’ in the sense of enjoying all aspects of one’s life and feeling fulfilled by one’s career, love life and family relationships, I think it is important to distinguish that it is not possible to give 100% of one’s energy to everything simultaneously. There is a difference between having it all and being everything to everyone.

Who cares for your children when they are sick and crying “mummy”, but their mummy needs to work?

As is the case in many nuclear families, the default when our children are sick is that the mother, rather than the father, takes time off to look after them. The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold. Many couples find that, during the time the mother has taken out of her career on maternity leave, the father, if not the higher earner before having children, has now become the main breadwinner. His job therefore becomes more important than his partner’s, even though this means risking her career sliding further and further behind.

The second reason is that , regardless of our career and income level, when our children are sick, the majority intuitively tends to call out for their mother for comfort. This is completely natural – after all, they spent nine months in our womb and many of us breast fed them. Those of us fortunate enough to delay putting them into a crèche or pre-school have spent additional time caring for their every need, taking them to playgroups and holding their hand through the early years of their development.

Even with the best father in the world being present for them, as mothers we instinctively know how to make our little ones feel better when they are unwell. Many of us also feel an internal pull to be there for them, regardless of having a supportive husband, capable nanny or family member available on call.

We need communities of support around us.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb often attributed to African cultures, but historians have discovered similar sayings across many other cultures around the world. There is so much value in being part of a community. In these times of change and the rise of ‘portable’ and ‘expat’ family units, we have become more international and transient in our citizenship, and it has become crucial to our future to start giving focus and attention to the development of caring connections with others in order to create tribes of support. Communities where we can share and gain collective strength as we once would have within our village.

Social media networks and smartphone apps allowing us to create ‘group chats’ have helped us to be better connected, but coming together person to person is so much more powerful than exchanging virtual conversations. Also, in reality where childcare is concerned, family and friends cannot attend to your sick child via webcam!

Balancing the care of our children, and indeed also that of elderly parents or sick family members, our career is just one of the challenges that women face when wanting to rise to the top of their industry.

In my book, Burnout to Brilliance, I highlight the fact that women think, feel and act differently to men, and that these differences are what make us so valuable in leadership – yet they are also, ironically, what hold us back. I believe the biggest shift needed in our collective cultural perception of female leadership potential crucially starts with each one of us recognising that our nurturing nature is in fact one of our greatest gifts to senior-level management, rather than something to be disregarded or penalised.

Gender diversity studies show that organisations with a rich female leadership pipeline have greater growth potential and can outperform competitors with 66% higher returns on investment, 53% higher returns on equity and 42% higher sales. In order to truly raise this potential however, I believe we need to learn how to lead as women, rather than continuing to emanate men. For several decades, women have had to demonstrate their ability to perform ‘like men’. While this arguably helped women progress in the past, it is now hindering women from creating the careers they want for their future. We can wear a suit and pretend to act like a man, but in doing so we force ourselves to disconnect from our inner guidance and lose authenticity.

Our future success will not come from making cut-throat moves and slaying others in order to get ahead, but instead by supporting those around and using our innate strengths to consider management issues in a more rounded and holistic way.

So, what I would like to leave you with tonight is the question:

How can we individually make a difference in order to collectively accelerate gender parity?

I believe the change we need starts with every one of us making a pledge to take action in our own lives, within our own families, communities and work places.

I would like to raise a toast to gender parity and encourage everyone here tonight to:

- Lead yourself first by modeling to others what powerful and balanced leadership means to you.
- Respect, honour and value other women. Recognise the challenges that other women are facing and that we are each doing the best that we can.
- Support the women around you by cutting them some slack rather than being so quick to criticise.
- Recognise that you need support and take the time to create and nurture relationships, so that you build support networks outside of your own nuclear family.
- Be a shade bolder and make your voice heard whenever you identify ways to develop a more inclusive and flexible work culture.
- Trust your intuition. Take rest when you need it. Acknowledge that it is okay to want to be with your children when they need you, it is not a sign that you are any less committed to your career.
- Encourage others to achieve their ambitions and take positive action towards gender parity.
- Believe in yourself and that the difference you make in your own life does count.

Learn more about InterNations and their event for IWD in Brussels here.

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