“I founded Beyond Green, partly to align my values and ethics with the organisation I work for and lead. This blog post outlines my personal journey of aspiring to live our values, in particular fairness, compassion and honesty, in relation to gender equality.” – Paul Adderley
My Sustainable Development Goal is Reduce Inequalities (Goal 10), and I recognize the importance of goal 5: Gender Equality because the idea that roughly 50% of humanity, people I value as work colleagues, friends or relatives, are treated badly purely based on their gender saddens me deeply.
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021, ‘Choose Challenge’, resonates with me because it encapsulates the personal and professional journey I have taken since 2014. There are some key moments where I chose challenge, and to my shame many where I did not. In this blog, I wish to share the four main phases in my journey ; I hope it is an upward spiral where I grow with each rotation though there’s a bit of snakes and ladders too. In fact, writing this blog is a moment to Choose Challenge as I could have excused myself from a task where I feel vulnerable.
1. Accept the Challenge – Own it
This is where my journey begins. It’s 5pm and we are about to finish up festive holidays in December 2014; I wish to email season’s greetings to our network. Here’s the draft graphic designed by a man, and accepted by a man (me). Before sending, I shared with my female colleague who I had recently hired.
What followed was 15 minutes of us going around in circles for me to understand her observation: “Why do we have a man on it?”, to which I responded “It’s our sustainability guide he’s there to help…..”, “Yes, but why a man…?”, “It’s our….” etc. This continued until she calmly said, “ But it doesn’t represent me?” (there were only two of us in the company then). I had an epiphany – “You’re right, it doesn’t”, I said; and a light shone in the greyness of my blind spots of unconscious bias. Within 15 minutes, we worked together to amend the image that worked for us, and at 5:30pm we were on holiday!
Over the festive period, I reflected on this episode and a wave of shame rolled over me with thoughts of all the female friends, relatives and colleagues I will have casually dismissed or whose view and worth I’ve ignored. I honestly know this was not out of malice, but I didn’t see it, hear it or recognise it as diminishing women.
There is an expectation that women, and especially those women in marginalised groups, will teach others to understand them, often without the majority (i.e generally men) making the effort to understand. I only began to change because I accepted that I had to rewire my brain. Of course I seek support from others, but I own the challenge.
2. Challenging myself – Rewiring my brain
We all have unconscious bias (blind spots). It’s not bad per se, it is how our brain takes shortcuts to process the vast volume of incoming information and how school, family and culture conditions us. But, it is wrong not to take personal action to uncover our bias. I know it took a female colleague to point out some of my blind spots, however the triggering event, noted earlier, helped me start to see the world differently.
One example is how I had perceived the technical, analytical and numeracy skills of women; embarrassingly I trained as a Chartered Accountant with many women! Previously, I had referred to a male colleague as the “technical expert”, without recognising hundreds of resource efficiency reports female colleagues wrote to a high technical level. My increasing awareness, from more self reflection, uncovered this blind spot; and the more women I actively listen to with meaningful conversations about gender bias, and the more widely I read, the more I will see.
I started to consciously rewire my brain, feeling the cogs shift, to express their numerical and analytical competency. On one occasion, my co-director, the female colleague from earlier, identified an error in my management accounts! Being more mindful of my thoughts and behaviors rather than dismissing her insight because I am “the accountant”, I could listen to her point. Though change is like the game of snakes and ladders, and I once had been unfair in taking over her calculation. The difference this time was that I quickly recognised my behaviour and apologized which was compassionately accepted.
And a core lesson with challenging myself is to be kind to myself because I will fail in the process. Forgiveness is part of personal growth of accepting the wrong we do and its impact on others. Forgiveness allows us to take responsibility and identify what small steps we can do now. This personal development gave me confidence to challenge others for their diminishing comments to women and degrading behaviour towards them.
3. Challenge Others – Confront the Stag
With greater awareness I could see how women were diminished in adverts, presentations, and jokes. However, many comments are so unexpected and subtle that the conversation has moved on before I had a chance to react. It is made more difficult to speak up when everyone else also tends to be unresponsive to the comments made. It’s like a summer breeze, fleeting.
In one meeting, I heard a man say “The trouble with suppliers is that their sales team are ladies without technical knowledge of the products”; I did nothing because it was so unexpected.
This sentiment resonates with women who experience the daily wave of comments that undermine 50% of humanity; and I feel ashamed I didn’t correct this prejudice in the moment. Though there are two occasions when I Chose to Challenge.
Rebalancing Power Differentials
We hear more often about the power disparity between men and women especially in the workplace. Some years ago, my co-director and I had a series of meetings with senior businessmen. Although the meetings were constructive, there was a subtle undertone which made me feel uncomfortable. It was really old jokes, the ones my Dad tells and I used to laugh at. But not now as I felt how these jokes belittled women. After one meeting I decided, I need to have a conversation. How would I approach this, I wondered? Our values, in particular fairness and compassion, gave me a framework of how to plan the conversation and my SDG: Reduce Inequalities was a pillar of support. I calmly expressed my observations, how their behaviour does not align with our values, and made my request for change. They listened, they acknowledged the wrong and changed so the uncomfortable undertone was absent in our future meetings.
Confronting the Stag
On the train to Penrith for the weekend away in the Lakes District, I had an unpleasant sight; a stag party with a man wearing just a fluorescent thong! There’s a time and place for many things, but an afternoon train with broad spectrum passengers, including two teenage girls, is definitely not the place. It took me an hour to build up the courage! With my stop fast approaching and my heart pounding, I calmly expressed my discomfort of his apparel, and how would he feel if his female relatives had such a view? Without any aggression from anyone, he quietly re-dressed, and as we pulled into Penrith I thanked him for responding to my request. He recognised his behaviour was wrong; and hopefully has changed.
By challenging others through our daily interactions, we will gradually change the cultures that govern our social norms and in turn the systems that govern us.
4. Challenge to Change the System
The systems that govern our lives are run by families, institutions, and cultures and will not change through one person alone but collectively. However, systems are only a representation of the people they serve and who serve them. If every man takes courage to challenge their unconscious bias and behaviours, calls out unacceptable behaviours with kindness when we witness women and marginalised people being treated badly then the system will change as those it represents changed.
I need to continue to challenge myself and others by widening my conversations and knowledge to be more aware of the injustice and inequality a lot of women experience on a regular basis; further compounded by race, ethnicity, disability and LGBTQIA+ identities which all marginalise women further. If we don’t accept the challenge to change for the better, then we risk missing crucial knowledge, intelligence and wisdom held by 50% of humanity that we desperately need to solve the challenges ahead. By employing and celebrating the skills, value and insight women bring to all organisations and wider society, we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Self-compassion is a vital tool in this process, because if a challenge feels too great we risk being overwhelmed so then take on a smaller one. Be kind to others who are unaware that their behaviour needs to change while calling out misogynistic attitudes and banter that diminishes women and people who present as feminine. I believe every human being can make valuable contributions to help the world become a better place; however, I realise now that only by choosing to challenge I can be part of making that belief a reality.
Grateful and Compassionate Conversations
I hope this blog post opens up opportunities to have more and deeper conversations with people regardless of where they are in their personal journey; and to provide a basis for how we at Beyond Green become comfortable in speaking about experiences so we continually improve our awareness.
I am grateful to the female friends, relatives and colleagues who shared their views and to other men who wrote about their experiences in the public domain; it gave me courage to add this blog to the dialogue. And thank you to the stag on 13:15 train to Penrith for accepting my challenge and literally changing, because it gave me hope to continue my journey.
It’s all about everyone having compassionate conversations to help each other to Choose Challenge, and to build a community that includes all of humanity.