It feels appropriate to write something about women for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. I’m reminded of when I was a kid and turned to my dad while shopping for Mother’s Day to ask, “How come there’s no kid’s day?” He replied, as most parents do when posed this question, “Every day is kid’s day.” And so the implication of there being no men’s history month or International Men’s Day is clear.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I shy away from writing for women specifically. It has to do with wanting to honor the individual journey each woman is on. We women have a shared story and it is important to be aware of that story and how we have come to the moment we are in. Yet we are of all shapes, sizes, colors, economic opportunity, education level, preferences and experiences. I am always concerned in addressing women as a whole, about who won’t be able to relate, who may feel a little left out or left behind, disconnected from “our story.”
What I see in my role is the segment of our story taking place in corporate America, which is comprised of thousands of unique characters experiencing similar plot lines. If in a meeting a senior man doesn’t look any of the few women present in the eye or invite any of them to contribute to the discussion, Woman A may notice acutely and be outraged. Woman B may not notice at all, content to leave with what she needs to do her job efficiently. Woman C may feel disappointed by her inability to contribute but may not be able to identify why it was hard for her. Each of these experiences of the same situation is valid. Each is true.
We all pay attention to different things. We notice different injustices, feel them differently, cope differently. We have varying experiences and beliefs that inform how we perceive things and how we behave and respond to people and situations. There are also ways in which we are all so similar; I hear variations on the same frustrations and challenges over and again. But the variations matter. We each have different tools at our disposal, differing areas of resilience and susceptibility.
It seems incredibly obvious that we have to respect each woman as an individual charting her own course, yet there is a human tendency when we address the concerns or issues of a group to diminish the nuances of the individual. We want to put the challenges that group faces into neat boxes so that we can then box up a neat solution. Even though many of the issues women face in the work place today are the same, the solutions for how each woman addresses them are not the same. The ways in which she experiences and internalizes them are not the same. While we continue to do the necessary work of making our systems more inclusive, of creating environments where a greater variety of people are seen and appreciated and supported, we also must support the individuals, each trying to make her way in her way.
My sense from working with women who are trying to be as effective as possible, wanting to be valued for their contributions, questioning their desire to stay or aspire for more, is that we could use more spaces where women can safely share their experiences. Not more panels of women explaining how they have successfully made it to the top. Not more huge women’s groups where a small percentage of women share their stories. Not more organizations using statistics to shape policy. We need more spaces where Woman A, B and C can be in a room together sharing their experiences and perceptions without judgement. In group learning environments, women pull me aside to address any issue they feel is related to gender. They never bring it up in the group—it’s always in private. In coaching, women are sharing experiences with me that they are not sharing with anyone else in the company. What I see is that people still don’t trust this conversation. They don’t trust the validity or value of sharing their own unique experience navigating the business world. We need to keep lifting up more voices, at every level, and to draw out the great variety of experiences we are having. Organizations still have so much to learn from their women. And we still have so much we can teach and learn through sharing the vast array of world views and expectations that make up our collective story.