It’s that time again. As if, like Santa Claus we only exist for one day of the year, this week ushered in another International Women’s Day. The marker remains necessary due to the glacial pace of progress in gender equality, focussing minds and attention on a deep rooted prejudice. IWD also provides more opportunities for me to meet and be inspired by the upcoming generation of men and women who are just not having it anymore. I don’t doubt they’ll be game changers so the least we can do is help along the way.
The day job means I get the great privilege of meeting and addressing some of the sparky future talent on which all our fairer futures rest. This year I was impressed by the young women of Cardiff School of Art and Design, who organised an afternoon highlighting creativity, leadership and successful women. Invited to join a line up of creative leaders asked to share their stories with the students as they approach their final months of study and prepare to launch themselves into careers, I was thinking what I always think when I do these things – and I do a lot of them – jeez what a responsibility.
When I turned 50 a friend told me this would be the decade of most fun. You’ve learned enough to worry a little less and got enough under you belt that people listen to you a bit. You have significant experience that’s worth something. That thought helps but doesn’t stop you fretting about what you say to people in their twenties who are setting out in a world dramatically different to that in which you spent your own formative years. Putting this in perspective, I’m not Michelle Obama so I guess the next generation isn’t hanging on my every syllable. For what it’s worth though, twenty years in leadership has been a wild ride and it’s still pretty exhilarating, so maybe I have some thoughts worth sharing.
In what must have seemed like an ancient history lecture, I called upon my greatest influences. Where else would I start? What you do in life is about who you are. Who you are, how you think and the values you hold, are shaped by the people and experiences to which you are exposed. As I’ve noted before, I grew up in the 1970s so I was exposed to some pretty odd stuff! Despite the prehistoric references, the students came back with some great questions. If it was useful to them it might be useful to others, so here are some of the people who helped shape me and who displayed some of the characteristics I think stand you in good stead, wherever your journey takes you.
Karen Silkwood was the first woman I heard about who died fighting for something she believed in. Silkwood worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, making plutonium pellets for nuclear fuel rods. She joined the union and was an activist on health and safety at the plant as a member of the union’s negotiating team, the first woman to hold the position at Kerr-McGee. In the Summer of 1974, she testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about her concerns. In November that year plutonium contamination was found on her person and at her home. That month, while driving to meet a New York Times journalist, she died in a car wreck in unclear circumstances. Her estate sued Kerr-McGee who were found liable for the plutonium contamination of Silkwood, but the amount of awarded damages were reduced on appeal. The case went to the US Supreme Court in 1979, which upheld the damages verdict. Before another trial, the company settled out of court for US $1.38 million, but did not admit liability. The theatre company performance at my school that illuminated the Silkwood story, long before Meryl Streep played her on film in 1983, left an indelible impression on me as a teenage drama student. It taught me about power, risk and motivation. Who might be trusted and who not. And for the first time I realised the power of the arts to bring critical perspective. I never forgot Karen Silkwood and I never again let a narrative go untested for its motivations. Leadership lesson one: what are you hearing, from whom and why?
Billie Jean King made tennis matter. When she called out Bobby Riggs for his chauvinism in 1973 she was just 29 years old. Riggs was 55 and regularly dined out on his misogyny until King beat him hands down in three straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, broadcast to an audience of circa fifty million across 37 countries. Look it up. It was she said later, no thrill for her to beat a 55 year old guy. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis. King founded the Women’s Tennis Association. She was world number one with 39 grand slam titles including 12 singles and 16 women’s doubles and 11 mixed doubles to her name. She had short hair, visible musculature and a big attitude on equal rights. King knew that if she lost the match women’s tennis could be set back 50 years. But if she won, she could vastly accelerate the advance of women in the sport world wide. She held on to that prize, focussed on the big picture and her own role in stepping up to lead change. Leadership lesson two: understand your attitude to risk and the scale of the reward.
Emerging from the then Czechoslovakia to conquer the world in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Martina Navratilova holds just about every record in tennis. Still. Again – look her up. Suffice to say she is widely regarded as the greatest tennis player in history. Navratilova ‘got religion’ as she put it, in a training regime that took her from an hour daily on the court, to four hours daily in the gym and on court in a hitherto unheard of cross training regime that made her an athelete as well as a tennis player. Critically she began to spend as much time on her diet and psychological health as her physical fitness. Leadership lesson three: Take care of your mind too.
In the 1970s the irrepressible and inimitable boxing champion Muhammad Ali was ubiquitous. He championed the underdog, made an endearing if wildly egotistical virtue of being the best. He advocated that it didn’t matter what you did in life, you could strive to be the best. In his unlikely victory over a younger fitter George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle match in 1974 he demonstrated Leadership lesson four: understand the power of psychological advantage, conserve your energies. The tactics Ali used are well documented and the loss devastated Foreman for many years. Ali and Foreman were legendary heavyweight champions and rivals. They also became the closest of friends.
Entering this chart with Leadership lesson five is American artist Robert Rauschenberg who strived for his creative practice to reflect and have relevance to the ‘world outside his studio’. Passionately advocating art and culture as powerful international connecting mechanisms, Rauschenberg avoided self reference at all costs. He knew that when coveted, ideas simply die. So lesson five: collaboration and generosity are essential for progress. Isolation and territorialism will suffocate your efforts. Your initiatives need the oxygen of others. Share. Go on. Just share.
Needless to say David Bowie comes in with lesson six. Be fearless. Expect failure. Suck up the learning. Test and question everything. And don’t apologise. Do not apologise for who you are. Bowie’s androgyny, his challenge to gender stereotypes and his defence of society’s outsiders, made him a key figure in the difference debate. On a daily basis I hear women apologising – literally and metaphorically – in meetings, in boardrooms, in presentations, at conferences, in myriad everyday situations. Stop it. Just stop it. You have very right to be who you are, to occupy the position you have trained for, tested trust for, risked and failed for, shaped and played for. Take your place. Stop qualifying your contribution.
The people I have sited here never apologised for who they are. They demonstrated the characteristics of authenticity, commitment, tenacity, resilience, courage and integrity. They strived to be they best they could be. And so as IWD 2017 passes and we hopefully move another step closer to a more equal world – however small a step – recall your own status as equal to others. Be the role model you needed when you were 25 years old. If it helps and you still need a nudge despite all that experience and achievement, recall that insightful statement, long attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘No one can make you feel inferior, without your consent’. Take your place.