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Women Onlys – you can be the change!

Ebeth van Heerden of Allan Gray opened the final WIFN event of 2018 in Cape Town with the theme of Oneness.  Her message was a powerful one:  what does it feel like to be the only woman in a room? On a committee? Voicing an alternate view? Alone. Ebeth has shared her message with us in this article – be inspired and encouraged!

At the recent WIFN event in Johannesburg, speaker Graeme Codrington caused the room to fall silent.

His presentation covered Tech trends in Financial Services, but he introduced it by recounting his discussion with his 19-year old daughter, Amy, who is doing gender studies at UCT:  he told her how much he was looking forward to addressing a 100-strong audience of women.  “Dad, I’m excited for you,” she responded.  “Consider for a moment, though, how you would be feeling if you were a woman anticipating speaking to a room full of men.” Her question gave him pause.  Many women would experience emotions of nervousness, anxiety, and even, fear, depending on the context and quality of audience.

Too few women equals too many ‘onlys’

“One in five women is an only” says the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America.  Women in the Workplace report is the result of a collaboration between LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, and is produced annually. The 2018 report states: “Women are doing their part.   Now companies need to do their part, too.”

What has resulted from companies not doing their part is Oneness is this, according to the report: “Women who are onlys are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with more women. They are more likely to deal with macroaggressions and are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed during their career. They often feel on guard, pressure to perform, and left out.”

And we all know that feeling of being left out … it brings its own baggage, leading to self-doubt, questioning your value and whether you truly deserve a seat at this table.  It’s never feeling like this is your space, this is where you belong. We also know from the stories shared here in the past that being the only woman in a boardroom feels like it comes with the added pressure of representing all the female gender!  All women, you feel, will be judged by your every action, competence, triumphs and disappointments.

Not surprisingly, “these negative experiences take a toll on women Onlys.  Despite having higher ambitions to be promoted and become a top executive, the are 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job.”

And you can imagine that this experience is simply amplified for women of colour.

But, you all know this, and you live this.

Yet, here we are, showing up to make a difference.

Building a better world

When we talk about this at Allan Gray, it is abundantly clear that there is work to be done.  If we want to build a financial services industry that succeeds in building greater financial security and wealth for all our clients – for all members of our communities and our families – we need to keep leaning in, and then, lean in closer.

This is why WIFN is close to our hearts.

The principles behind the beehive – taking responsibility for our shared prosperity, mentoring and networking, very much resonates with our own to build a more, not only diverse, but inclusive environment.

Ebeth at the WIFN Cape Town, November 2018 with Sarette van den Heever, Maya Fisher-French, Anet Ahern and Esmé Davies.

Making a meaningful difference requires each of us to ‘lean in’. While we often joke about the different social dynamics of the WIFN chapters in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, it is clear to all of us that women everywhere face similar challenges – and therefore benefit from our supporting each other.

So, I want to challenge you tonight.

Something in Anet’s journey and Chris and Ash’s incredible My Kitchen Rules adventure will touch your heart, and make you reflect on your own life, and inspire you to look at the world around you in a different way.  Turn that moment of reflection into real action: think of just one other ‘only’ – in your office, your family, your community, the school bodies you participate in – that one often-misunderstood, spoken-over or never-heard voice. Invite her in!  Make yours a half-circle, with room for someone to join in and maybe find a place where they can belong.

Hold onto these ordinary stories of extraordinary bravery you will hear tonight. It is in sharing and walking together that we can all find the courage to speak up for ourselves, or quiet the voices that drown ours. Thank you for coming tonight – we look forward to welcoming you again.

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