I am very passionate about gender equality, whether it is girls getting access to the same education as boys or women having the same opportunities and respect as men in the boardroom. It is a topic that really matters and as a result is one of the subjects which you’ll find me getting into a heated debate about!
I am very fortunate never to have had my gender (knowingly) held against me. My parents ensured I had all the same opportunities as my brother and as far as I’m aware no employer has ever thought less of me because I am a woman or treated me differently. That said I have had people make assumptions about me, both as a woman and a young woman, which let me say right now is both transparent and irritating.
As we have both previously written about, setting up a business from scratch is far from easy, and while I don’t think that any of the challenges I’ve faced have been down to me being a woman, the thought that anyone may face discrimination due to their gender fills me with a kind of uncontrollable rage. Life and being true to yourself and your dreams is hard. Really hard. Now add in unnecessary obstacles and what you will inevitably end up with at a macro level is a whole load of disenfranchised and marginalised girls and women within an unequal and unfair economy and society. And let’s be honest the girls aren’t the only ones who suffer – everyone does.
That being said, prejudice and discrimination is not clear cut. Humans are complex beings, the product of so many different experiences. We absorb things from all around us which contribute to making us the people we are, and many of these personality forming experiences come in our early years as our brains are developing. I grew up in a liberal household in a multi-cultural city with the benefits of books, television and in later years the internet. The third wave of feminism was in full flow. And yet despite all of this I find it hard to let go of my own internal monologue about what is and isn’t right.
One of the reasons we started Okapi Home was to provide and promote more equal opportunities in parts of the world that have more challenges than most. To ensure that craftsmanship and talent is seen, no matter who it comes from. And this is not just about women (though of course this is a big part), but also youth, rural traders, unemployed people, the list goes on.
I find myself impressed with society and then utterly depressed in the same breath when I see how far history has impacted on what I view as success. Just this morning I read an article about this idea of a “strong woman” who is a flying success in her field and is celebrated as such. Great we all say; we need more mainstream examples of women who are doing for themselves and others.
But why do we need to refer to them as strong? We do not do the same for a successful man. They are just successful. There is no need to place a judgement on their character to explain their success, as it is probably down to a complex myriad of things. And yet for us to allow a woman to be success she has to be explained as somehow different and more masculine than the norm.
The riveting events of the Rio Olympics are another area where women from the world over are completing awe-inspiring feats of strength and power and the stories that are coming out are truly inspirational. These women are the best in the world in their field, with the kind of dedication, talent and power that makes us mere mortals stare at them in slack jawed wonder. And yet the international media and audiences are intent on detracting from their incredible achievements with comments on their appearance, their figures, their love lives. They find themselves torn apart for daring to assume that they are there to compete in their field of excellence, when in reality they are there to conform to our expectations of what women should be like, regardless of their occupation.
Challenging these expectations, as well as our own intrinsic thought structures and showcasing the vast range of successful women is the only way we can expect to break the enduring gender inequality in our society. We need to see women as capable of anything, without having to explain away their success or break them down when they do not behave as we would like or expect. Honest stories of women winning in all fields from sport, to business, to government need to be the norm and we need to endow the same skills for brilliance in our children. Tell them whoever they are, wherever they are from, they can dream and be anything and for it to be true. That is when we will have real change.
For my part I will endeavour to challenge mine and others perceptions, be honest about the realities of being a female entrepreneur and what this means for me. And this probably isn’t going to be my last word on the matter.