It's All or Nothing

March 8, 2018 Robin Whalen

I’m going to say it. I’m hesitant, I’m cowering ever-so-slightly, but I’m going to ask the question.

Do we still need an International Women’s Day?

I understand the statistics. On average, we are paid up to 20% less than our male counterparts. We struggle with the “motherhood penalty” – the ability to balance parenting and child-care which often results in an exodus from the workforce (at worst) or from our chosen field (at best). We are under-represented on boards and we dominate ‘female’ jobs (read: Teacher, Nurse, Secretary, Health Aid).

So, on that level, hell yes, we need this day.

But on the other hand, we are not the most marginalized group. Particularly in Canada. I’m sure no explanation is needed to underscore the needs of countless, at-risk groups. Think LGBTQ+ and Indigenous Canadians to start. Our latest Federal budget had 358 references to gender alone.

So maybe this day should now belong to someone else? I don’t have the answer.

But here’s what I do know. I’d like us ALL to have our day. Or better yet, to not need a day. The bottom line is this … our everyday actions can add up to so much more than a single day ever could. As I sit here and write a post on International Women’s Day and prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement about the value of gender diversity and the need to #pressforprogress – the reminder of how important it is to model the behaviour we want to see in others is not lost to me.

So, I will ‘celebrate’ on March 8th. And I’ll try and do my small part to be the example of what I’d like to see for future generations. Every. Single. Day.

Once Upon a Time…

I was young. I was impressionable. I was passionate and eager to learn. I got my first marketing job at a bank and I was in. 200%. Ready to give everything.  My boss at the time was a 30-something woman with an impressive background and had much to offer a newbie like myself. I was giddy.

For about 1 week.

I knew immediately that something was not right with our relationship.  Something wasn’t right with the way she managed people internally and talked to clients externally. Human Resources validated my concerns but told me to press on and make the best of it.

Straight up: this Manager was the poorest example of leadership that I’ve ever come to witness. And somehow, the fact that she was female made it feel worse. Potentially because I was so young and looking for inspiration. Instead, I spent 7 hours a day on eggshells. Let me explain.

I had to log bathroom breaks.

It was suggested I take a class for penmanship because my printing was deemed illegible (is penmanship class even a thing?).

I was told that I should consider another career path. Marketing was not for me.

When I asked for support, mentorship and guidance, I was patted on the head and ignored.   Literally.

While it was about the worst 24 months of my career, it serves today as the very best example I have of what NOT to be. How NOT to act.  Particularly as a woman in a position of leadership. I have a responsibility to behave in a way that I respect in others.

Abraham Lincoln once said that he would do business with imperfect men if they could serve his purpose.  I wish I could have understood what this Manager’s purpose was at the time.

But I see it now. She is my forever example of how to raise people up. To teach. To support. To mentor and to empathize.

I take my career seriously. I take my role as a female ‘leader’ seriously. I aspire to be honest, straight-forward, direct but also real, unapologetically loud and at times, a tad inappropriate.

And the scars that my first manager left me, fueled my desire to mentor and support not only my full team, but particularly the young women new to their careers.

While there are no hard and fast rules of leadership, I have a few guiding principles of my own.

  • Don’t be scary. Be direct. And if required, explain what direct actually means so there is no misunderstanding. I’m not rude. Just focused. Take the words at face value.
  • Live by the “no dumb questions” philosophy. Encourage dialogue. Anything and everything. Ask me.
  • Invite dissent. No one needs a ‘yes man’. Has nothing to do with your level or your title. We are in the ideas business. Share your ideas. Even if they are unpopular.
  • Work hard. Play hard. Job’s done? Go outside, see a movie, enjoy yourself. We’re not punching a clock.
  • Feeling a bit stressed? Upset over a meeting? Need to let off a bit of steam? Emotion at work is not a bad thing. Find an appropriate outlet and let it out. Call me if you need me. I have a strong shoulder, years of experience and ability to relate.

And most importantly? Give back. I feel like I’m in an enviable position at times. I’ve worked hard and have enjoyed a rewarding career in Advertising. Male dominated? Certainly. But I’ve hidden my imposter syndrome well and pushed through. Through having babies, managing childcare and juggling day-to-day, I feel like I’ve done it all. I have an amazing husband who picks up much of my slack. And – after my first not so positive experience in this industry – I’ve been lucky enough to work along-side some incredible female mentors who made me see who I could be.

In order to succeed, we must first believe we can.

My first agency boss. We’ll call her Dana. She laughed a ton. Cried at times. Showed me how human this business was and basically undid the damage of my first position by leaving me to figure things out and reminding me of my value all the while.

Then there was the “Pacemaker.” She was loud. And as direct as you could be. You were scared of her for 5 minutes until you realized that she was this way with everyone. And when you needed help, extra support, training, anything really…. she’d literally drop her books to give you what you needed to succeed. Including phone-calls on the weekend, pats on the back and sharp emails if that’s what the day called for. She also wasn’t adverse to a hug now and again.

The Corridor of Power. Three amazing women I worked with who reminded me every day of how capable we all were. How hiring people who are NOT in your image is a smart philosophy. Fill in your blanks. Be honest. Shoot from the hip. Form friendships in the midst of business with women who can literally do anything when empowered to believe they can.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Gandhi preached this sentiment long before we had a day. And his teachings hold true today. Statistics show that we need it. So here we are.

As for me? When it comes to work and management of people, I’ll cheer, I’ll laugh, I may even cry. I pick my business partners carefully, I’ll fist pump till the end of my days. I will ensure my daughter believes in her potential and my sons support the women around them by rejecting gender roles.I’ll speak up when something doesn’t feel right. I’ll celebrate those that go out of their way to do the right thing.

I’ll do this today on International Women’s Day and every day moving forward. Because it’s not just about our actions on one day. It’s about our actions every day.

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