When Wait is a synonym for Never: On why we need to be impatient for change

Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues. She did things her way to get the best results, even if it meant working late with her students, who were breaking curfew. If you think these seem like good qualities for scientist, then you are right. But back then, these weren’t necessarily considered good qualities in a woman. Her intelligence, her self-confidence, her willingness to break rules, and of course her pants were all considered shocking!

Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science

That was 1930. What is it like in 2020? International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on what has (or has not) changed. 70 years, after all, is almost a lifetime.

Equality is a difficult topic – perhaps not for everyone, but it is personally difficult for me. On the one hand, it seems unbelievable that there is a whole group of us who are treated differently – consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not, it doesn’t matter. No one I know can think of any logical reason why that should be. We all seem to agree, at least theoretically, on the equality of all. But here we are, in a world where we are making progress towards equality of women. But in tiny tiny steps.

My first job – we were part of a consulting team working at an oil & gas company. I was an intern, there were ~15 or so of us in the team. I was the only woman with a technical degree, who was there to code. #Girlswhocode was not a thing back then. It would be false to say I had a terrible time and that it was hard to be the “only” – fact is, I had a blast. It was fun. I had been used to all-male groups – in my family, in my sports groups and in the engineering classes. The situation was quite normal to me. It was just how things were.

It took me a while before I started realizing the implications. When I had my first confrontation with a boss when he gave my male counterpart a higher raise, despite agreeing that I was the better performer (the argument was that he was the sole breadwinner for a family and needed the money more than me – a single woman at that stage), when I realized that I had been called “ambitious and driven” in a performance review and that had worked against me but the exact same words had gotten someone else a promotion, when a client made a pass at me and instead of making a big deal of it, I chose to step off the project with whatever consequences that might have had on my career – it didn’t feel right that this is how things should be.

Leadership is about change – we change the world for the better. We often forget to say that leadership is not just about the trajectory of change, it is also about the pace of change. If I think back to my first internship 22 years ago and compare it to how things are now, some things are indeed different: women are still a minority at the workplace, but the number of instances where we are the “only” woman are fewer. There is more awareness, most of our young women are vocal and aware and do not normalize the situation as we did half a generation ago. Men around us seem genuinely interested to change the situation and to increase their own sensitivity and awareness. No one is smirking when we say we need to bring about equality. The answer we hear now is not, “Things will never change.”

But – what is that we hear? We hear, “Wait”. “Wait, equality is just around the corner, but it takes time.” “Be patient, take it slow.” If I may paraphrase Martin Luther King – Wait has almost always meant Never. It is the polite way of postponing the difficult discussions, the tough actions. I am not ready to wait anymore. Neither should you.

UN Women

The graphic from UN above shows our state of affairs – the distance we need to cover to be the #GenerationEquality most of us aspire to be part of. Imagine that for a moment – to be part of the generation that would finally bring about equality. Each for equality.

As I have become more intimately aware of the nuances of addressing gender equality, the complexities of social change and perhaps just plain old, grown wiser with age – I believe that the way best way to address Women’s Day is not just to celebrate women, but the uniqueness in each and every one of us. Some of us – regardless of gender and sexual orientation – may have a more feminine or masculine side to us. Gender and sexual orientation in itself, cannot be considered binary definitions – we are the human rainbow with a whole range of shades and hues. We are each unique individuals with complex lives, with a desire to be accepted, appreciated and loved for all of who we are. That is the world I would like to live in, or at the very least, to leave behind for the next generations – a world beyond labels.

When I think of the future, I imagine a world where every day is a woman’s day. Where every day is a man’s day. And every day is everyone’s day. Where we will have a new generation who would think it slightly ridiculous that we needed to celebrate just one day for half of the world. Where we are all celebrated everyday, for the unique individuals we are, where we are all beyond all labels. To that day, I raise a toast.