International Women’s Day 2021 #ChoosetoChallenge

arrow

Lessons from #ChooseToChallenge Month

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” James Baldwin.

This year, the International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality.

This campaign’s highlights go beyond simply celebrating women’s performances. It’s about challenging gender stereotypes, fighting prejudice, and taking responsibility for our own biases and actions, meaning we all have more work to do.

 

Gender inequality is not a women’s issue and the risk of not recognising this is to everyone’s detriment. Gender equality is crucial for global economies and communities to thrive. Not only women but our children, and thus, our future will suffer if we don’t act on it.

 

I started writing this post as the news about sexual allegations inside the Parliament House erupted (1). I can barely contain anger and frustration towards men’s responses to the victims of sexual abuse and assault. 

It takes an incredible amount of strength and courage for women to come forward. Why? Because we don’t feel safe and supported when reporting sexual harassment. We don’t trust the legal system because we want more than a slap on the wrist for sexual abuse, violence and predatory behaviour.

 

It also takes courage and confidence to tell others how we want to be treated, especially in a professional environment.

 

As professional women working in male-dominated environments, or even in other contexts, some biases we have to constantly fight are:

  • not being taken seriously;
  • getting mistaken for the secretary when in a meeting or for the nurse instead of the doctor (2);
  • being called pushy, abrasive when showing confidence and leadership skills in a high role position (3);
  • being seen as emotional and overreacting.

 

Bystanders, who assist to those scenarios like passers-by, are as responsible as offenders because their silence and inaction endorse them (4).

 

I work in an industry with historical low female representation. Mechanical engineering. I am the only woman in a small team of 5 people and recently I’ve been invited to meetings and other activities that are not strictly related to my role. My hard work, skills and performance are very much valued, but gender-biased and sexist comments are ever-present in those meetings.

In those moments, I ask myself: “Were I a man, would I still get the same treatment?”. If the answer is yes (and more often than not it is) then I respond in kind, I’m not intimidated. But I feel exhausted, exhausted of always being ready, never being caught off guard at their puns and jokes. Sometimes I even feel defensive and angry, like I have to show my tough side to endure the environment.

 

Nevertheless, I #choosetochallenge. Not just by calling people out. But by educating bystanders and making them understand that their silence and inaction would only condone and perpetuate this behaviour. I have to tell them how I want to be treated and why it’s important.

 

Anger and frustration are the catalysts to reshape gender stereotypes. As women, we need to train our anger to serve us, use it as a stimulus to act and speak up, accepting that we may be called hysterical in doing so.

 

I choose to challenge my family when questions about maternity and biological clock make me want to hang up the phone on them. The early messages I received when I was a child were that women had to be of service to men. I was told I had to get married, that it was natural and that was what God wanted for me. Except, I perceived God as another man who made decisions for me and told me what to do. So faith in God was lost soon enough. My family did their best but they promoted the same image their family wanted for them perpetuating the cycle.

 

I chose to challenge an old white man when he made both sexist and racist comments to an Indian woman on the tram: “You look sexy but if you were in India you would be on the roof of the tram not behind the wheel”.

 

A Woman’s Place

Exploration per se is not a woman-friendly activity. It’s not a thing we can practice on a whim without planning ahead. 

Wandering aimlessly at night, maybe after a couple of drinks with friends, headphones in, dressed in your favourite bright red dress, taking a shortcut back home…Image that. Would you feel safe? If something bad were to happen to you, would you feel responsible or at fault for that?

 

80 per cent of public space in cities is used by men and women feel 10 times less secure in these public spaces than their male peers. (5)

 

Even claiming public spaces seems hard for a woman! Leslie Kern, the author of Feminist City (6), describes her day-to-day life experience in the city:

“Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the streetcar? Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous? […] These aren’t just personal questions. They start to get to the heart of why and how cities keep women “in their place.”

Are women still tethered to the home, the kitchen, the garden? Perhaps, shopping is safe enough as it doesn’t challenge gender norms. (7) But driving a tram apparently does…

 

Professional Migrant Women

Over the years, female migration for work purposes has grown rapidly and is still on the rise (8). 

This phenomenon requires special attention as women migrant workers are often employed in the so-called “invisible” sectors, such as domestic work and caregiving often not regulated or protected by the destination country’s labour legislation.  This leaves us exposed to abuse and exploitation at work and sometimes at home. 

We tend to endure more than we should, afraid we won’t find another job easily. We tend to accept more internships and entry-level roles than men to prove that our overseas experience is just as valid and get our foot in the door. 

 

We fill in jobs in high demand that national workers often shun but which represent essential work in sectors such as agriculture, construction, hospitality industries, among others. (9)

Our lack of local network and familiar contacts make it difficult to reach out, connect and break into our field of expertise. 

 

Unfortunately, we encounter different levels of bias and discrimination: 

  • Race, colour and ethnicity
  • Occupation (working in roles way below our skill level)
  • Wages (unequal pay for equal work)
  • Migration status (visa, lack of government support (10))

At the same time, immigration can also be empowering for us. Learning a new language,  gaining additional portable skills, increasing economic independence and bringing out that distinctive level of resilience that can take us places. But be mindful, resilience is NOT putting up with underpaid demoralizing jobs, toxic bosses, and gender bias. Resilience is about how to recharge and reinvent yourself, not about how to endure (11).  

 

Takeaways and the way ahead

  • Change is constant and is a journey, not a destination. Equality and inclusion won’t happen overnight as we have to adjust our own biases.
  • Anger is good and serves us only when well channelled.
  • It’s ok not to call out these behaviours if the risks are high. Bring in a third party if needed.
  • Even if you get invited to the round table where decisions are made, that’s not the end of it. Your work is just about to start. Being invited it’s not the same as being enabled to contribute equally or being valued in the same way. If being invited to the round table turns out to be just another occasion for men to shine and undermine you, gaslight you and make jokes, then there’s no point in being present.
  • You need men in power not to be bystanders but to get them to do something about it. But it is up to you to educate them.
  • “Cosmetic” policies used as marketing tools to make businesses look good don’t make real changes.
  • Challenge the type of feminism that is typically white, the kind of feminism that has harmed women of colour, migrants, and the LGBTQI community.
  • It’s a tiresome job and it’s never-ending. Take your time and space to make sure you’re ok first. Reach out to your community, girlfriends, mentors. They will bring to the table an external opinion, essential when stakes are high and you feel overwhelmed.

Just as patriarchy is enshrined in the urban environment, white supremacy is also the ground upon which we walk.” Leslie Kern

So long,

The PMW Team

Sources

1) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-15/brittany-higgins-rape-claim-parliament-house-defence-minister/13154736 

2) https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/04/oh-are-you-a-nurse-the-physician-gender-bias.html

3) https://www.catalyst.org/biascorrect/

4) https://hbr.org/2017/03/too-many-men-are-silent-bystanders-to-sexual-harassment 

5) https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/architects-ask-where-are-the-spaces-for-teen-girls  

6) Feminist City, Leslie Kern

7) Feminist City, Leslie Kern

8) https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@gender/documents/publication/wcms_101118.pdf

9) https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@gender/documents/publication/wcms_101118.pdf

10) https://www.sbs.com.au/news/goodbye-australia-the-migrants-giving-up-on-the-australian-dream-for-canada

11) https://hbr.org/2016/06/resilience-is-about-how-you-recharge-not-how-you-endure