My Route to Gender Equality Took a Detour

Growing up with a big brother as my idol, I was all about embracing the ‘boyish’ side of life. Despite my long, blonde locks and occasional dress wearing, I was determined to do everything he did – climbing trees, playing football and even shooting a rifle (thankfully just targets, not living creatures). I often came home to my Mum exclaiming, ‘What have you been up to? You look like you’ve been through a hedge backward.’

I dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot, drawn to the thrill of it (although the thought of taking a life didn’t sit so well with me). My ability to ‘do’ science and my affinity for male companionship made this feel like a natural fit.

While that dream didn’t materialize, my career still led me into male-dominated fields. I started with business consulting, where women made up just 25% of the workforce compared to 75% men. Later, I entered the realm of organizational psychology, where the gender balance only slightly favours men at 52%. But, since my work focused on leadership, where only 9% of FTSE 100 CEOs were women, I mostly worked with men.

Not My Issue

Naively, embarrassingly in fact I never saw gender diversity as an issue. I could see why it was for ‘other people’ but it didn’t bother me. However, I now believe think that by ignoring the differences for so long I have been doing a major disservice to women. While I’ve always confronted bullies and injustice, stubbornly refusing to be a bystander, when it comes to gender diversity, my unconscious attempt to try to blend in arguably let me down.

Imposter Syndrome and Invisible Barriers 

Before I left the UK, I met one of my mentees, Gill. As we sat in a cozy Soho coffee shop, our conversation flowing over steaming cups of tea, I truly began to feel the weight of my neglect toward my fellow females.

Gill is a brilliant scientist, poised to make ground-breaking discoveries in her field, but when I saw her she was struggling. The weight of imposter syndrome had settled heavily on her shoulders, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t belong among her peers. Her worries echoed what I have seen time and again across industries but that I have never paid enough attention to. Stark gender disparities that persist throughout women’s career, even when they are leaders in their field. Women, being held back by their own limiting beliefs which are fed by social norms and then amplified significantly by the myriad of invisible barriers put up by organisations and society.

Perhaps I was woken up by the fact that these barriers have hit home for me over the past two years as a founder. In the UK, for every £1 of venture capital (VC) investment, all-female founder teams receive less than 1p. While it’s challenging to quantify the direct personal impact of this, I’ve undeniably felt that this time the boys have left me out in the cold.

What Women Need, Not What We Think They Need

It’s often disheartening to see women’s achievements overshadowed by men accomplishing the same feats. Consider the utterly brilliant woman I spoke to for the podcast last week whose accomplishments listed on Wikipedia include being the:

  • First woman and first American to reach the summit of Lewis Nunatak in Antarctica.
  • First woman and first American to ski to the South Pole.
  • First woman and first American to row across the Atlantic.

N.B. Would her gender have been mentioned if she were a man?

She wondered out loud if she would have received more public recognition as a man. Her conclusion? Likely, yes. And it’s therefore easy to assume that’s what she should get, that’s what she wanted. She may have received less attention, but she also went on to say that she wouldn’t have ‘wanted’ that level of fame. The key point here being – we must understand what women truly need, not assume what they need is the same as men.

A Long Overdue Change of Perspective

What matters most to me today is being mother to two incredible girls, on the verge of stepping into a world still grappling with unfairness and inequality. This together with these nudges of experience have profoundly rattled my convictions, prompting me to acknowledge the harsh realities at hand.

If we genuinely seek a more peaceful, equitable, and inclusive future, we must realize the potential within every individual. It’s our shared responsibility to nurture that potential and work towards a better world for all.

Initially for me that means harnessing Oka as a tool to empower women, enabling them to uncover their intrinsic needs for growth and success, backed by the essential human support. It’s about supporting one another, especially in the face of global challenges.

If you would like to support a woman, regardless of your gender then please sign up as a mentor with Oka. If you are a woman looking for support please also sign up to our waitlist here

Written by Fiona Murden, Founder of Oka

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