Kirstin Ferguson and Catherine Fox
September 21, 2018
They were teachers, scientists, nurses, engineers, politicians, lawyers, carers, students and retirees, living in villages, on farms and in the world’s biggest cities. Any doubts about who would want to read about the life of a shark scientist in New Zealand, a teacher in Africa, a competitive barbecue cook in the US or a pharmacist in the UK melted away. From the very beginning of the #CelebratingWomen campaign in January 2017, Kirstin Ferguson’s fundamental belief that every woman is a role model to someone else was reinforced – and then replicated 757 times throughout the year. This appetite to hear about and learn from the everyday was gratifying, but also reflected something compelling. The jolt of delight and surprise many women felt from being profiled, or reading about others, revealed how effectively these stories and achievements had been hidden from view, or diminished by comparison to traditional success stories.
It was a revelation, and a motivation to do much more sharing. It challenged the idea that “success” comes from imitating traditional masculine models that focus heavily on individual impact and less on collaboration. Suddenly it felt as though every woman could take part, without waiting for gatekeepers or letting others speak on her behalf.
Legitimising and affirming a wide array of women became a core part of the campaign’s cumulative power, and a trigger for many followers to keep the good work going. The breadth of profiles neatly turned on its head the unhelpful notion that only “superwomen” are considered worthy of attention, or as possible leadership icons. Just like the shoulder pads and stiletto heels of the 1980s “career woman” in the film Working Girl, the idea of putting all-too-rare women leaders on pedestals is well past its use-by date.
There’s no question that men act as, and need, role models too. The difference for women is that the narrower prescribed paths they have been encouraged to follow have left many options effectively off the table.
‘The tiny cohort who do make it to the top are sometimes depicted as desperately striving to “have it all”.’
Often their achievements and the value they add in lower-paid and lower-status jobs have been invisible to others. In Australia, as elsewhere, women are still disproportionately clustered in a few sections of the economy – healthcare, social assistance, and education and training – with men dominating in a wider range of sectors with higher pay rates.
The tiny cohort who do make it to the top are sometimes depicted as desperately striving to “have it all”, an expression that infuriates many women and can lead them to harbour a deeply held sense of guilt when it all seems so impossible. “Having it all” is really shorthand for women who combine a paid occupation with a family; the same description doesn’t seem to apply to men. In fact, the many women featured in #CelebratingWomen did “have it all” – but in a very different sense. Most had combined a satisfying job – although not always in their original field of choice – with a range of interests, community and caring roles, supported by a network of other women.
Suddenly an expression designed to make women feel inadequate became a compliment and a refreshing recognition of achievement. #CelebratingWomen made it clear there is a pressing need to challenge the societal view that only high-achieving or well-known women should be celebrated. There is no doubt these rare leaders deserve praise – but the women we also need to remember and celebrate are those who are around us every single day. Not every woman wants to become a brilliant scientist or run a Fortune 100 company. Many want to live their lives in a way that makes a difference to the people closest to them and leaves a positive legacy. Every woman has done important things in her life, even if her stories and contribution have flown largely under the radar. Women deserve to feel proud of their efforts, particularly when they’ve had to tackle restrictive social norms about what they were meant to do with their lives.
Women have always had the capacity and will to speak up and own their achievements, but have encountered powerful deterrents throughout history – particularly those women who are further marginalised by race or sexual orientation. But as more and more women from across all parts of society find the means to add their voices, bypass the mediators and tell their own story, and to show the breadth of what they do, the parameters and traditional assumptions about achievement and leadership will shift significantly. They already are.
‘Women in leadership are depicted as aberrations from the norm, complete with superpowers.’
Ferguson’s original premise, so amply reinforced by the campaign, that every woman is a role model, also helps challenge assumptions about women in leadership, who are depicted as aberrations from the norm, complete with superpowers. Casting the net so widely makes women’s achievements relatable, but no less inspirational. Role models of all kinds are important for everyone, but this is tricky territory for women when their efforts are so often invisible or dismissed, and they face the trade-off between competence and likeability.
Traditional male leadership models venerate older men, who are often seen as naturally authoritative and wise. The opposite is often true for women, in Western societies at least. Older women are often the butt of jokes, or ignored.
What stood out to Dr David Cooke, managing director of Konica Minolta Australia, was the large age range of the participants in the #CelebratingWomen campaign. Cooke’s efforts include promoting and employing women in non-traditional roles, so for him the spectrum of the profiles was particularly resonant: “I found the #CelebratingWomen initiative truly inspiring. Of course, there are millions of women with amazing stories … I particularly loved the range of stories from an age perspective, as well as the diversity of careers and fields that different women worked in.”
The campaign also punctured another frustrating gender stereotype. As Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says: “It is too easy for people in positions of power to declare that the main barrier to women’s advancement is their lack of ‘self-belief and confidence’. The suggestion is that women need to promote themselves better, including seeking pay rises and promotions more proactively. Evidence tells us that even when women do these things, they are less likely to be successful, and their promotions are more likely to be questioned.
“For me it is not women’s lack of self-belief that explains why they are not at the top: there are complex systemic barriers in place, barriers that I believe undermine productivity and quality … It’s not about women’s confidence. It’s about the system.”
Extracted from Women Kind, by Dr Kirstin Ferguson and Catherine Fox (Murdoch Books, $29.99). You can read the profiles of 757 women at #CelebratingWomen on Twitter