First Bold Steps – Women on the Rise

In a year full of controversy, where women (and men) finally speak up, what better way than to get a large group of women together in one room and talk about our future.

If you are an awesome woman aspiring to lift your career, this article for you. And guys, this one is for you too; hopefully, it will provide you with insights and create (even) more awareness to some of our realities.

Bold Steps is a brand new conference, hosted for the first time at the fancy Cordis Hotel in Auckland. Initiated by the Institute of Directors and On Being Bold, the conference aims to bring female leaders, directors, and aspiring women together to share their ideas, experiences, thoughts, and challenges in terms of a successful career and a rewarding personal life.

As a career driven individual who happens to be female, I jumped at the opportunity to go along. I was not alone: 540 powerful woman, of whom 12 were speakers and two Dames, filled the room decorated with enough flowers to make you forget it is almost Christmas.

The event was structured around governance and female representation on boards. All the speakers hold positions on several boards and come with a great amount of governance experience. But even if you are not aspiring to become a board member, the stories, tips, and advice will resonate with all woman trying to progress their career.

Image courtesy of On Being Bold

The status quo

In New Zealand, we are fortunate to have a powerful woman in charge, helping to normalise the image of great female leadership. Traditionally, NZ has been at the forefront of female rights and equality and it is not the first time we see a powerful woman leading the country. But why is it that, across New Zealand, boardrooms are still filled with of 82% men and only 18% women on average? It is not that we don’t have enough talented women around. It looks like we are still dealing with biases and societal barriers that are holding us back.

And if you go beyond the gender issue, and simply look at diversity, the picture becomes even bleaker. Clearly, it is more than just gender discussion, it is about diversity and inclusion for all.

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, could not make it in person but she did leave a wonderful video message in which she encouraged women to shake our confidence deficit and dare to say yes to career opportunities you never dreamed off.

So what can we do to prepare ourselves to take leadership roles and fill those board seats?

Here the themes I picked up:

01. Overcoming the confidence deficit.

We probably should start by looking at ourselves and realise that we are victims of our own lack of confidence. Yes, certainly our society has carefully planted and nurtured the seed for as long as we can remember. Our school system, language “(wo)man up”, and media consciously or unconsciously always favoured men. It has led us to believe we are not capable of achieving our dreams. It is time to shake this confidence deficit and come out of the shadows — or as the host Dame Therese Walsh said: “You don’t have to wait for somebody else to say ‘you’re good enough.”

On a personal note: I am a strong believer in empowering girls and women and challenging the status quo. Nothing worse than witnessing a continuation of societal misconceptions that feed our insecurities. And I am not alone. More and more people are rising to the occasion and bringing out great stories and products. A wonderful example is the Rebel Girls books which bring amazing stories about female role models to girls and boys around the world.

02. Never stop learning — put in the hard work

Pretty much all of the speakers and panellists touched on the subject of preparing and being informed.

A great career is simply the result of hard work, and the amount of work needed to prepare for (board) meeting can easily be underestimated. For better or worse woman tend to prepare more than man, but the good news is that it will lift your confidence levels going into a meeting.

It is important to adopt a growth mindset and never stop learning. Learning throughout your career by exposing yourself to many different challenging environments will make you resilient. Learn from others by observing and actively engaging in learning opportunities. And learn by actively seeking out new knowledge through (free) courses to complement your career. Don’t worry too much about creating the perfect career mix, it is more about the ingredients than the perfect recipe.

This growth mindset attitude will become increasingly important as we are entering an age where your brain is your most powerful asset. This is not necessarily IQ based — the latest studies show that your attitude is a better predictor of your success than your IQ! (from weforum)

Feel like learning? Have a look at some of the online courses from Udacity, Coursera, and TedEd.

Frances Valintine, one of the keynote speakers, dedicated a good part of her talk to the importance of learning and the future of tech. Here some nuggets that got me thinking.

  • The upcoming 3 years will be the most disruptive in humankind – I tend to agree with her as the rise of AI, blockchain, and advances in medicine will amaze us beyond our wildest dreams. This is equally exciting as it is worrying as a lot of our society will have to adapt to this new reality.
  • The world is not aging – 51% of the global population is under 30! This quote actually took me by surprise but then I realised that we do tend to live in a bubble. Frances’ point with this comment is that this 51% percent all have access to the internet and are brought up with technology (in one form or another). They will change how we see the world and the values that come with it.
  • Are we preparing our kids for our world or theirs? It is easy to worry about how technology is changing our children, but the reality is they are finding their way to information faster than ever. Being engaged with technology is vital in a fast moving world and it will ensure you will understand your kids future.

But not to worry, there is time for all of us. We will be working longer and according to Frances’ estimation, your career might have some more left in it than you expect. If you are 35 years old you are 23% into your career. At 55 you are 63% in and at 65 you are 82% on your way to the finish line.

03. Work-life balance, accept help –  DON’T BE A MARTYR!

The expectation of a woman’s contributions outside of work, like childcare, domestic chores, and social engagements, are huge. These expectations are usually held up by our own believes that we have to do it all and basically be superwomen. We tend to be too hard on ourselves when we are not ticking all the boxes. There is a simple solution: get help. Hire a cleaner, get your car washed, hire a nanny, enable your network and above all do not feel guilty about it.

Be very clear that you are committed to work, as well as your private life, and clearly state the things you will not budge on. All of it will free you up to spend quality time with your loved ones and have time for yourself.

Finding help extends beyond the practical aspects of life, like cleaning. Surround yourself with wise friends and advisors that will always have your best interests at heart. They will help you keep you in balance. And if you have the possibility, choose a work culture that allows for flexibility and cares more about the quality of work than the hours you put in.

And if you are ever in the position to help others, do so. Pay it forward.

One of the panels in action – Image courtesy of Kirsten Patterson @_K_Patterson

04. The Bias battle – uncomfortable truths

Although we have come a long way in reaching that equal status, we are not yet free of the preconception and expectations that surround us as career driven female individuals. It is incredibly important to call out if you witness or experience bias in the workplace. Even “accepted” banter in the workplace feeds the ugly beast called Bias.

Jolie Hodson used a wonderful quote, from Lt. General Morrison, in her talk to make the point:

“The standard that you walk past is the standard you accept.”

Because, as a female, it is still likely you are a minority in the boardroom, it is important to normalize the environment as much as you can. From the moment you walk into the room, make yourself heard; speak up, represent and engage. And realise that while diversity can make everyone a tiny bit uncomfortable, it creates an edge and an openness.

For anyone keen to fight the battle with me/us, champion women (and minorities) who deserve it, promote a diverse workforce and be a connector.

“The standard that you walk past is the standard you accept.”

– Lt. General Morrison

Next bold steps

The conference has enlightened and (re)ignited me, and I am sure many others, to actively and continuously fight biases, being our own or others. The desired change involves action and purpose. It will not only help your own career, it will also help the careers of many to follow as we work towards a more inclusive work environment.

Special thanks to all the wonderful speakers and panellists:

Joan Whithers, Jolie Hodson, Frances Valintine, Lizz Coutts, Alison Gerry, Kirsten Patterson. Cathy Quinn, Tania Simpson, Dame Paula Rebstock, Royal Reed, Silvana Schenone and Dame Therese Walsh. You can read their full bios here.

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