Thursday, 13 October 2011

Women's Issues

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Today I had the chance to attend a networking event for women in the sector I find myself working in. 

My current job is openly acknowledged to be a kind of intermediary exploration into business development ahead of moving into a role that relates to my degree, and I appreciate my employers being satisfied with my short term commitment. Even though it isn't a 'job for life', I want to make the most of the learning curves it brings and this event was an opportunity to meet more experienced practitioners and benefit from some of their expert advice.

The organisation that hosted the afternoon of presentations aims to link women in an arguably male-dominated sector, and essentially create a 'safe space' for their development. Whilst the subject matter discussed largely centred on how to network effectively, a reoccurring emphasis was placed on women being supportive of one another - working together to inspire each other and advance each other's careers. 

It's a sentiment I have a fair amount of time for: my bookshelves are littered with literature that charts the rise (and fall) of successful women, from Indira Ghandi and Anita Roddick, to the 'women who ruled England before Elizabeth II' who are introduced to an unsuspecting audience by historian Helen Castor. Reading their stories does inspire me, and I feel strangely supported by them despite our different circumstances, cultures and even time periods. I also recently enjoyed the snippets of interviews in Emerald Street with female leaders, and am guaranteed to buy Vogue whenever they do one of their inspirational women seasons.

At the same time, elements of the discussion left me feeling incredibly frustrated. For example, I didn't resonate with the idea that women struggle in more competitive and 'professional' networking scenarios and therefore need these havens of female informality in order to get ahead. This is perhaps a misrepresentation of what the speaker(s) intended to communicate, but it's what I heard, and often seem to hear when women come together to bond over 'being women' in a particular sphere. It seems to me that the message becomes about learning how to compensate for perceived female weaknesses, or in the language of this particular event "women's issues", with everyone rallying round certain accepted insecurities like not feeling confident enough in the workplace.

It's not that I don't think those insecurities are real and crippling, or that I want to deny anyone a supportive environment in which to move ahead in work (and life). I just feel that in packaging these sorts of concerns as women's issues, we are selling ourselves short and perhaps even reinforcing the difficulties  by perpetuating the idea that these are the sorts of things women should struggle with. 

Gender can be a powerful unifier, and gender specific role models and events can have particular relevance - offering encouragement derived from commonality. But let's not be complacent and fall back on stereotypes that reduce complexities into neatly applied labels. Male or female, we owe it to ourselves to make progress towards being the best version of our individual selves in the contexts we're in, without getting overly hung up on categorising ourselves along the way.

1 comment:

  1. Talking to my Mum shed another light on this issue. She contrasted my generation with her own and suggested that perhaps events like the one I attended are more valuable for women returning to an entirely different working world, maybe after having children - or for the first time entirely.

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