With today being International Women’s Day, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the day means to me. Why is it significant? Throughout the world the day represents different things to different people and is celebrated in many different ways. So why do *I* find it important? What does it mean to me?
For me, International Women’s Day is largely about three things. It is an opportunity to remember all of the amazing women who have come before me who have helped pave the way for me to be able to work, vote and have the life I do. It gives me the opportunity to celebrate the strong and amazing women in my life. Finally, it is an opportunity to raise awareness that despite the progress we’ve made, we still haven’t reached a fully inclusive and equal level. Most importantly, throughout all of these I’m struck by the fact that individual actions matter, no matter how small, and how we are stronger together.
Women from History
There are so many women from history who have demonstrated strength and perseverance in many different ways that have advanced all of our lives. Women such as Susan B. Anthony or Mary Wollstonecraft or even Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges have made profound impacts. There are even very recent examples such as Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton. All of these women have fundamentally changed the lives of everyone who has come after them by pushing boundaries and standing up for what is right. But what about all of the people who we don’t know about? I may not be in a position or have the right personality to have the same impact as many women we’ve heard of, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
I recently watched Hidden Figures through a joint event of Box’s Women in Tech group and Box’s Black Excellence Network. I was struck by the strength and tenacity of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. While reflecting on the movie, I’ve thought about how these women didn’t necessarily go out of their way to advance women. They just pushed the boundaries while doing the things they loved doing. To me, that’s the bigger inspiration. I might be intimidated by people who make gender equality their life’s work, but I don’t have to do that. I can still be an inspiration to others by pushing as hard as I can where I already am. I can still make a difference through small things. I’m not saying that I shouldn’t still try to make a big impact, but I also shouldn’t become intimidated into inaction. Even the small things matter.
I’ve been asked by managers and others who my role model is or who I would want to be ‘when I grow up’. I’ve never known how to answer that question because the truth of the mater is that I don’t have one role model. There definitely isn’t a celebrity or person from history that I want to emulate. In fact, if anything, my role models are a combination of all of the people that surround me. None of them is perfect, and there isn’t a single person who I want to be exactly like, but each one has something they’re amazing at that I admire. They inspire me to be a stronger and better version of myself.
I’m going to be cliche and start with my mother. My mother inspires me in many ways — from having a strong work ethic to seeking perfection in everything she does to always approaching life with a sense of humor and fun. What I’ve always admired most about her is her ability to understand those around her. I’ve seen her get complete strangers to help her out through her strong sense of empathy and understanding of their motivations and feelings. From her, I’ve learned that understanding people’s incentives and finding ways to get those to align with what I want can turn almost any situation into a win for everyone. My co-worker, Natasha, has a way of seeing how any task or situation can benefit someone and really selling them on it. She finds ways to get me excited about things that I would have initially turned down. My friend, Sharmeen, can start a conversation with anyone and has the natural ability to win people to her side. She’s also a natural leader with a great balance of humility and strength — all while keeping a level head. My cousin, Kitty, has the ability to turn basically any situation into an amazing story. She has a knack for finding the humor and the skill to bring that out. And this list goes on and on. (Don’t worry, if I didn’t mention you, it doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re amazing, because you are!) Together, all of these women highlight to me what is possible and inspire me to try to make myself better in many different ways. It’s the small things done by normal people that sometimes have the strongest impact.
While women have made a lot of progress, I think the recent eruption of Susan Fowler's post is a good reminder of how we're not nearly there yet and have a lot of work still ahead of us. There are a myriad of issues from unequal pay to gender discrimination to unwelcoming work environments. While all of these and many others are important issues, in the end, I think the most dangerous issue is unconscious bias. The tricky thing about unconscious bias is that it's almost impossible to directly pin down. For any individual event, there is usually another good explanation, so it's very hard to point to any action and say that it's happening because of bias. However, in aggregate, those small biases start to become clear.
People have asked me if I've ever felt discriminated against as a woman. My answer is always that I'm not quite sure. I've had times where I've felt like I had to work extra hard to earn someone's trust as an engineer, but was that because I was a woman? Or maybe that individual always takes longer to trust someone. Or maybe it was something about my personality. If that was the case, is that personality trait related to the fact I'm a woman and how I was raised? I've also experienced times when I spoke up in a meeting and people didn't really respond to my point but when a male colleague brought up the same point later, suddenly everyone was talking about it. Again, did that happen because I was a woman? Or maybe that same group does it to other people too, but I'm just hyper aware of it happening to me because I know it often happens to women. I've gotten very non-specific and non-actionable feedback after a review cycle from a manager (which again, statistically happens much more to women), but was that because I was a woman? Or maybe that manager just wasn't as good at giving constructive feedback. In all of these cases, I don't believe any of the people involved would consciously do anything based on gender and are probably all big supporters of women. In fact, statistics show that women are just as responsible as men for unconscious bias discrimination against women. However, if certain behaviors are unconscious and so hard to pin down, how do we fix them?
I’m not going to pretend to have the answers to these or any other gender questions in the post. However, I think one good step toward improving anything is awareness. Things like unconscious bias can’t be changed by a single person or a single large action. Ultimately, that’s one of the reasons that days like International Women’s Day are important. It’s the opportunity to both celebrate how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished, but also to raise awareness and work with our allies to think about how to continue to build on those accomplishments. We are stronger together and together we can build an even better future.