Several times this year, I have taken a stand for women and diversity, in print, on stage, and in leadership. My opinions, and my choice to stand firm on this mountain have been met with mixed reviews, and a lot of questions. I have been asked, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that people won’t hire you if you are too opinionated?” I have also been asked, “Aren’t there more important things to focus on?” But the most common question I have been asked is, “Why do you care?” I’d like to take a few minutes and answer that question.
I grew up poor. Really, really poor. Take your idea of poor and then subtract stuff. For a few years we didn’t have running water. More than once I can remember my parents worrying about how they were going to feed us. I rarely ever had new clothing. From the age of 15, I worked three jobs – not for fun money – out of necessity. To this day, if I have enough money to pay the bills and get groceries each month, I feel amazingly wealthy.
I also grew up with very conservative parents. Very. I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances or go to the movies. I was required to dress ‘modestly’ and study hard and be polite. But most of all, I was raised with one very important philosophy: girls were meant to be quiet, submissive, and grow up to be quiet, submissive wives and mothers. That was the gig – that was my only option.
I both loved and hated school. I loved to learn, and the teachers at my small town public school were wonderful and challenging. But the other kids were brutal. I was poor, I wore ugly hand-me-downs, I worked three jobs, I never socialized, I had zero understanding of pop culture, and I was smart. I was also bullied, badly. I clearly remember spending every lunch hour of grade nine in the girl’s bathroom, crying.
I promise, I am getting to the point.
I didn’t know I had options, back then. I was not pretty, and all the cheerleaders were pretty. So, that didn’t seem like an option, for me. I wasn’t popular, and all the kids picked to run committees and organize events and write the yearbook were popular. So, those didn’t seem like options either. I didn’t see leaders who looked like me.
More than twenty years have passed since then. I have worked hard and traveled and met amazing people and grown up a lot, thankfully. And I have learned some really hard lessons along the way. But this is the lesson I have l most appreciated:
Everyone has options. Everyone has a voice and a gift and a choice. Everyone has a story to tell and something to add to the conversation. Everyone is enough.
So, back to the original question, “Why do you care?”
We have a real issue, friends. Not just in our industry, but in them all. We have an issue on our streets and in our office buildings and in our hearts. When our videos, stock photos, commercials, stages, corner offices, and “top ten best & brightest” lists all look the same… what are we saying to everyone else? We are saying that if you don’t look a certain way, or dress a certain way, or earn a certain amount, then you are less than. You aren’t enough. You don’t have options. We are saying “you have to be like this to be the best and brightest, because all the best and brightest look like this!”
A common response I get to this is, “I want the best content, doesn’t matter who presents it.” Or, “I don’t see colour/gender, I only want to learn from the best.” Or even, “the most qualified should be chosen, no checklists needed!” Here’s the problem with that – how do you know? How do you know who has the best content, or who is the best qualified? Who judges that? Is there a single criterion? Or are there as many criteria as there are audience members?
Leaders have a single responsibility: to create more leaders. Not leaders that look just like us, or think just like us, or act just like us. Leaders. Our industry is more in danger these days than ever. All tech changes and organized politics aside, if we can’t understand that service is the most important part, we are doomed. It is critical that we are building a farm team of smart, kind, service oriented people to take our places. But we are sending these young, smart people a very clear message these days… if you don’t look like this, or think like this, or act like this… this isn’t an option for you. And this is both very wrong and very dangerous.
The only way we are going to succeed and grow and adapt to change is by joining together. Not by scolding and finger pointing and using the stage for grandstanding and belittling others, but by welcoming diverse views, crazy ideas, and out there opinions. By giving equal credence to those who look, think, believe, and speak differently than us. And right now… our industry is a sea of sameness. And it’s getting really old. (Literally and figuratively.)
No, I am not saying, let’s put unqualified people on stage as tokens. I am saying let’s make a point to give a wide variety of viewpoints. When every person on a panel or a list looks and believes the same, chances are pretty good they will have similar views or approaches. Is that really what we want – a never ending spewing of the same thing we’ve always had? Is that the message we are sending our future leaders?
I am not going to stop speaking up. I am not going to stop asking the questions and pushing back. I am not going to stop challenging us all to look around and think. I want to be challenged. I want to keep growing. Does that make some folks uncomfortable? Sure. I get it. Change is hard. Adapting is uncomfortable. But it’s time. It’s time to stop thinking that success only looks a certain way. Success looks lots of ways, and means different things to different people. We all have options and gifts and a voice. Me using mine doesn’t make yours less.
I do sincerely hope that 2018 is the year when we don’t have to keep say things like, “where are all the women?” or, “why is everyone white?” I hope it’s the year when people of all colours and genders and viewpoints can look at our industry and see they have options and role models and that the speakers and trainers and videos and panels reflect that. That is how leaders are created. And that is why I care.