“Know your worth… and then add tax.”
It was this phrase on which Izzy Obeng closed our 2021 International Women’s Day webinar – and it seems a fitting one to open this blog. The theme for IWD 2021 was #ChooseToChallenge and our session with Izzy, entrepreneur and Managing Director of Foundervine, and Sally Helgesen, author and women’s leadership coach, was a true celebration of aspirational female leadership.
For me, one of the best things about Emerald Works’ live webinars is the “buzz” we see on the chat. With Nahdia, Sally and Izzy joining us from London, New York and Ghana respectively and attendees dialing in from across the U.S. and Europe, as well as Russia, the Philippines and beyond, we had a truly global audience for this special event.
Both Sally and Izzy came ready to share their powerful messages around the #ChooseToChallenge theme, and in particular, comment on some of the hurdles faced by women that have been brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nahdia Khan, Head of Learning Community and Customer Voice at Emerald Works, led a stirring conversation, inviting both speakers to assert what the 2021 theme meant to them.
Sally Helgesen: free yourself from the burden of perfectionism
In her 2018 book, How Women Rise, Sally and her co-author Marshall Goldsmith identify 12 habits that traditionally hold women back from reaching their potential. In our session, Sally shared three of these built around the #ChooseToChallenge theme:
#ChooseToChallenge yourself to own your achievements. “I’ve spent 32 years working with women leaders”, Sally said, “and I’ve always seen a reluctance amongst them to claim their own success”. Sally described a tendency in women to be overly involved in managing others’ perceptions – concerns about coming across as arrogant, for example – when in fact, being able to celebrate your own achievement is not only good for your own career progression, but also sets an empowering example for other women.
#ChooseToChallenge yourself to let go of perfectionist behaviors. Research shows that organizations have traditionally rewarded women on precision and correction, whereas they reward men based on visibility and connection. The pandemic, Sally argued, is the perfect time to try letting things go, as we are faced with newer challenges in so many parts of our lives. So, ask yourself, is 80% perfection acceptable, rather than pushing for 100% all the time – and what opportunities become available when you free yourself of this additional pressure?
Engage your allies. If you find, for example, that you are apologizing constantly, enlist someone to help you break this habit. Perhaps you’ve noticed someone you work with who never apologizes, so #ChooseToChallenge your own habits by letting them know of your intention to change. Sally recommends that you ask them straight: “Do you have any suggestions on how I can better share my achievements? How do you recommend I increase my visibility at work?”
Izzy Obeng: break through barriers
Throughout Sally’s presentation, I could see – yes, even through a screen! – that she and Izzy were aligned on many of the points she put forward. Their smiles, nods and body language said it all. That’s part of the beauty of International Women’s Day: it’s an opportunity to connect women, in this case with completely different backgrounds and experience, in a safe community space.
Izzy’s own contributions had a running theme of the need to question existing preconceived notions of “what works” and “what’s acceptable”:
#ChooseToChallenge the status quo. In today’s world, Izzy said, women need to have the confidence to speak up when they believe something isn’t right. She pointed out, too, that as a result of thousands of years of unconscious bias against women, much of this is a question of having the opportunity to build the skills to feel confident in yourself to ask the right questions – so take the opportunity to build your skillset wherever you can.
- #ChooseToChallenge the narrative of rejecting help. Many women are hesitant to make themselves vulnerable by speaking up when they recognize that they don’t know the answer to a problem. “The reality is that people love being asked for advice, and being given the opportunity to contribute to someone’s ideas,” Izzy said. In fact, it’s possible to be more creative and more entrepreneurial by asking people to participate in conversations rather than holding back.
#ChooseToChallenge the expectation around who can be an entrepreneur. Izzy has unique insight into this thanks to her own experiences with Foundervine, her business which provides start-up opportunities for entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, who have traditionally been disadvantaged against the traditional white male entrepreneur. As she put it, “starting a business, whoever we are, helps us to see how we can contribute to the economy and the skills and insights we can take away to other parts of our career.”
What does the pandemic mean for women?
Nahdia then asked both our speakers to share their thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted female leadership, and I think many attendees would have been surprised at the positive outlook Sally and Izzy both held. It is unquestionable that the impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to hold jobs in the worst-affected industries, and are often more responsible for tasks such as homeschooling. However, both Izzy and Sally welcomed the new, flexible way of working that the “new normal” has introduced us to, and how the long-term impact of COVID may well work in favor of women. Where women were traditionally seen as inflexible by employers due to care commitments, for example, the pandemic has shown that women are in fact able to work effectively at a time and place that suits them. Izzy described this as our “first true digital community,” with movement away from the traditional “hubs” such as Silicone Valley and London’s Shoreditch.
What is allyship and how do we achieve it?
A special highlight of this session for me was when a male member of our audience spoke up and asked how he can better support his female co-workers. And our panel agreed: it was mentioned that the task of empowering women has often been left to fellow women, rather than bringing men into the conversation to serve as allies. As this audience member demonstrated, men know that they need to engage with women – they often just don’t know how to do it! Sally and Izzy went on to provide some tips for men who are ready to step up to the role of ally:
Share your own experiences: feel free to talk about what has worked in your careers, but acknowledge that women face different challenges.
Be prepared for directness: all of us can create safe spaces, but sometimes it serves women better to be able to be clear and forthright about our opinions.
Create organizations where radical candor is rewarded and appreciated, thus encouraging women to speak without fear of repercussion.
Empower women to build networks for opportunity, be that through your own network or by introducing them to others – both men and women – who can help and support them.
The #ChooseToChallenge movement – taking it forward
As a woman navigating my own career, I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring panel than Izzy, Sally and Nahdia. What was particularly exciting for me was that even though each of these women were coming from a different place – literally and metaphorically – they had so many shared experiences and were united on the changes that need to happen for women’s leadership to thrive. The feedback from my fellow attendees was equally positive: I think many of us came away feeling that we’d invested an hour of our day into something we could apply directly into each and every day going forward. And that’s what International Women’s Day is all about: every conversation that happens is a rung on the ladder closer to those heights that one day, we will be able to reach.
To relive the interactive session watch the recording here.
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