I’ve never thought deeply about gender issues because I personally haven’t experienced gender-based discrimination. In high school/junior college I was a Science and Math student (back then, it that meant that I only took these subjects, no humanities). In my class, girls outnumbered boys, and did as well as them – there was no differentiation. When I went on to college, and work, I didn’t experience gender-based discrimination.
So when I was invited to a “Women’s Forum” in October, I hesitated. Would it be disingenuous to identify myself with “women’s issues” if I had never suffered on behalf of being a woman? I went ahead anyway, because I wanted to explore this question. I have also been more conscious about minority issues since moving back to America in the midst of the polarizing 2016 Presidential election.
Fast forward… last week, I was in Paris for the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society. I participated in a panel on ‘How Technology Can Keep People in Work’ with Christele Genty (Google Europe), Elisabeth Moreno (President of Lenovo France) and Heather Cykoski (ABB), and was nominated for the Rising Talents Initiative for Women leaders under 40. As a result, I got to hang out with a bunch of really talented and driven women for three days straight, all sponsored by the Conference organizers.
Here are five takeaways from my experience:
Women’s issues are real
To many, this seems like a “duh” point to make. But I write this because for those who have not personally experienced discrimination, it is easy to downplay or distance ourselves from the issue. For example, at the back of your mind, you may ask, “is he/she overplaying this? Does he/she have a hidden agenda?” – that’s you distancing yourself, and I’m guilty of this too.
I took the opportunity to ask many women about their experience, and more than I expected had experienced some form of harassment or discrimination. Examples:
- Harassment: anything from a boss saying “hey, I’m bored, send me an explicit video of yourself now” to inappropriate touching
- Conscious and subconscious discrimination: the pay gap with their male counterparts, having one female toilets in manufacturing and chemical plants for the sizeable female workforce.
Listening to personal stories helped me realize, deep down, that this is real – the lived experience of thousands of women. I should – indeed I must – care, even though it is not my own lived experience.
Women’s issues are a small sub-set of minority issues. Let’s treat them as such.
Emphasizing women’s issues can lead us to unintentionally de-emphasize issues faced by other minorities, especially if you turn it into a “men vs women” debate.
Case in point: at my hotel in Paris, all the room cleaners were men. I found myself inherently suspicious of them, and more cautious about my valuables. Why? I had an unconscious bias against men, who are a minority in domestic and caring jobs. Why do we not wage war on disparaging attitudes against men in these roles, in the same way that we wage war against disparaging attitudes against women in executive roles? The situations are not completely parallel, I admit. But you get the idea. Men can be minorities too and let’s not understate their experiences.
I have not even talked about racial, religious, educational minorities. The point is – minorities exist in every micro-context. I see Women’s issues as a sub-set that points us to the broader set of minority issues. We need to be aware of the existence and experience of minorities, which brings me to my next point.
Accept it: If you are in the majority, you are blind to your blindness on the barriers faced by minorities.
I spoke to several women from big tech firms, who shared their experience of making complaints about harassment. “In the end, the only thing you can do is leave” – was the overwhelming sentiment. Some companies require you to give a written statement of the incident, without telling you how the statement will be used and the implications it might have. Others advise you that you can take it to senior management, or the courts, but then your own reputation would be dragged through the mud. Bosses tell you “oh, that guy is just a jerk. Just ignore him”. I’ve heard similar stories for racial minorities – one just happened to a college friend of mine in an investment firm.
Rules and processes for dealing with harassment and discrimination really have to take into account the experience of the minority – often one of disempowerment and sometimes shame. If you are in the majority in any particular context, you have to go out of your way to ensure that processes that enable reporting of harassment or discrimination make the minority feel safe.
Here’s one good example: the most inspiring woman I met at the conference was an international human rights lawyer who started a non-profit, “We are Not Weapons of War” to provide advocacy and legal services to victims of rape in conflict zones. She found that it was impossible to get these girls to go to the doctor or seek legal assistance because of their aversion to men and deep feeling of shame. Technology, she shared, enabled her organization to support the girls without requiring them to leave their comfort zone.
Women-specific events are helpful, but be careful to be inclusive
I see a place for women-specific events. In my experience, women tend to come out in greater force when the event is women-specific. I don’t quite know why, but this seems to be a common experience. Furthermore, if you are in a minority, solidarity and community helps with gaining new perspectives on your particular challenges.
However, we really shouldn’t forget that the nub of the issues is diversity and inclusiveness. We need to be careful about making sure these women-specific events do not turn exclusive by either disparaging men or subconsciously excluding other minority groups from the agenda.
Educating our next generation of female leaders to rise in a male-dominated professions without conforming to male stereotypes
It was a lot of fun participating in the Rising Talents Initiative, which recognized a dozen women leaders under 40. One very cool lady I met through this program was Estelle Touzet, the Chief Sommelier at the Ritz. She is only 36, and oversees a team of 8 sommeliers. We visited her at work late one evening (she works 14 hour days). Witnessing her excel in such a male-dominated industry with grace and femininity was inspiring. It’s a beautiful thing when women rise to the top of their profession without altering themselves to fit the stereotypes of the dominant gender.
It made me reflect on my school experience. I went to an all-girls school which advocated breaking female stereotypes. Looking back, I appreciated the spirit of equality – women can achieve whatever men can. But I am more wary about the subtle messaging that we have to give up our femininity to do so. How can we avoid mixing up the two for the next generation of female leaders?
A further thought – it is not just women who are pressured to conform to male stereotypes in leadership. Many men also do not display such traits naturally and suffer for this, which brings me back to point 2: let’s realize that women’s issues are only a small subset of minority issues. They point us to something larger.
And now, for some personal anecdotes:
- There’s a stereotype that women tend to prepare better for professional meetings and engagements. This was my first time on an all-women panel and this was absolutely true. Our incredible moderator May Busch arranged two pre-conference calls to establish the angles that each of us, based on our experiences. Everyone added their points to a Google document. May shared her facilitation plan. Result = dozens came up to us to say that we worked like magic together, that they had never seen such chemistry between panelists and blow after blow of impactful points. I’ve attended too many sessions where I’m like – wait – are these panellists discussing the same topic? Or worst – why does this Very Important Person seem so…unoriginal? Lesson learned when it comes to assembling panels, preparation >> raw genius. So is it true that women tend to prepare better, or just my one-off experience?
- I learned some personal lessons from my co-panellists: May Busch (ex Morgan Stanley banker) and Elisabeth Moreno (President of Lenovo France). Before our session, they said: before you speak, think of what you want your audience to think, feel and do after you’re done. I’ve subconsciously thought of panels as ways to convey ideas. Connecting and inspiring? Perhaps incidentally, but never a main goal. These two ladies showed me that you can connect, inspire and share new ideas without coming across as cheesy and unprofessional. May was very deliberate about engaging the audience. At the start, she asked them to look out for that one point to take away, and at the end, she reminded them to share that point with one person. Elisabeth wanted to give the audience conviction that they could rise to the challenge of harnessing technology to improve their jobs, rather than fearing that technology would take their jobs. She was very deliberate about addressing the audience personally and used her body language to do so. These two women gave me food for thought on how I communicate.
- I am not sure how I feel about this yet, but I’ll write it here for entertainment. In typical conferences, all the booths are related to ‘work matters’, but in this one… photo-taking studio (super long lines), free Philosophy (cosmetic) products. 😉
Overall, I’m really thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society. It was a really helpful step on my journey to greater empathy and advocacy for those who are marginalized by society. Hope this has been interesting for you and I would love to hear your thoughts 🙂
Here’s a quick video they did of me for the Rising Talents Initiative. They picked the part on my advice for young leaders. Check it out here.
2 thoughts on “5 Takeaways from my first Women’s Forum (Paris, Oct 2017)”
Thanks Karen for sharing these insights! I’m so glad you wrote so honestly, because like you, I didn’t not feel gender discrimination when growing up in Singapore and in school. It is only after living abroad that I began to experience and feel discrimination issues. I thought maybe it’s because I was lucky. A check with my other Singaporean friends living abroad reflected the same. But yet, one question I am still trying to figure out is, if girls in Singapore grew up in such favourable conditions, why ain’t there more women in leadership roles at the work place? Education? Personal choices? Social expecting? Competency? Any thoughts?
Jamie, Girls in Tech Paris
Hey Jamie! I’ve been thinking about that too. No scientific answers but some thoughts:
1. Part of this may be generational. The women in their 40s and 50s now may have had a different educational context than us. Our generation may have a higher proportion of women leaders but that’s yet to be seen!
2. I think a higher proportion of women than men rethink their career goals after having children. They may not step off completely, since singapore has one of the highest female labour force participation rates, but they may take time off and make choices that give them more flexibility. Unfortunately in hierarchical Organizations (which are predominant) face-time and the willingness to be at the beck and call of stakeholders and bosses is important for promotions.
I would like to see broader definitions of leadership. If we consider small business owners, I think the number of woman-owned companies is increasing as women try to find the balance of flexibility and maintaining a career. I’ve also seen more women opt for consulting roles rather than operational roles. These may not be the typical definitions of “leadership” but they are making really strong impact!
This is not to say that there isn’t gender discrimination in any singaporean workplace. I personally haven’t experienced it yet but many other women could have a different view. Would love to hear what you think too.