Thursday, 29 November 2012

At the crossroads

The picture on the right is of a hairstyle that is common where I come from.  It’s called suku and it involves all the hair, being plaited upwards to meet at a single point.  When it’s done properly, every plait ends at the same point.  It looks beautiful, but the intersection where all the plaits meet can actually be quite sore, due to the pressure of the individual plaits. It’s not one plait that causes the pain, but the combined effect of all of them.

I have been interested in the concept of intersectionality ever since I first came across it, during my masters course.  Put simply, intersectionality is a way of taking into consideration all of the different facets of our identity, when describing our experiences and how they affect us.  Whether it’s gender, race, age, ability, sexuality, religion or socio-economic class, intersectionality is an important concept, that can help us understand why we feel like we do.  It helps us to understand the effects of multiple discrimination and how it links into things like race and gender inequality and discrimination. 

Most recently, I was reminded of the concept, when Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama.  I cheered like a wild thing!  As for her acceptance speech, don't even get me started!  It was a little bittersweet though.  I mean how come it's taken so long and why is it still so unusual?  I guess the answer lies in part of her speech: " you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there!"  Since she won, as well as accolades, there has been the predictable backlash as well.  Step forward Nancy Lee Grahn. Ms Grahn apparently took exception to the fact that Ms Davis referenced a speech by Harriet Tubman.

These are challenging times to be a Black person in the United States, what with the seemingly gratuitous killing of Black people  and the random appropriation of facets of Black culture (nothing new there then when you think about it). As I pondered all that is going on, it made me think again about the concept of intersectionality.  Parts of this week's post were first published back in 2012, but the issues are still as pertinent today and so I decided to republish it.  I hope that for those of you who haven't read it before, it speaks to you and for those of you who have already read it, I hope it says something new.

The first intersection that I would like to talk about is gender and race.  Ms Davis' win is important because for far too long Black women in Hollywood have been portrayed as hoochie mamas, baby mamas, any other kind of mama or the help!  If I am discriminated against as a Black woman, is it because I am black or because I am a woman? Why should I have to choose between one or the other anyway? I am Black and I am a woman.  One doesn’t trump the other. The important thing is the impact of that discrimination and the effect it has on me.  Ms Grahn's response to Ms Davis' speech smacked to me of a sense of entitlement and a bizarre sense of having been left out somehow!  Ms Grahn was speaking from a place of White privilege.  I'm not one to see the race bogeyman around every corner, but the refusal of White women to accept that in relation to Black women, they too are beneficiaries of White privilege.   I am currently living in a society where as a Black person I am in the majority.  And yet all around me, I see examples of preference being given to individuals just because of the colour of their skin.  I see the deference that is paid to them.  The assumption that they know better and are in fact better, because they are foreign.  It is a stark reminder to me, that people are still privileged by virtue of their skin colour- no matter where I go!

The second intersection that is important is that of gender and culture.  You don’t have to look far to see examples of how this intersection impacts women negatively.  Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality and it thrives in the intersection between gender and culture.  In my mind, every manifestation of violence against women that we see is rooted in cultural beliefs, assumptions and mores that categorise women as being ‘less than’.  The cultural context then works to reinforce and aggravate the violence that women experience.  A recent report on gender in Nigeria[2] makes for some pretty bleak reading.  In spite of the fact that we have a national gender policy, the inequality and discrimination faced by women and girls is horrifying.  Only 20,000 women, out of the 60,000 young men and women who enter the formal work sector manage to get a job and they are consistently paid less than their male counterparts-even where those male counterparts have fewer qualifications. In the North West of the country, 70.8% of young women aged 20-29 are unable to read or write compared to 9.7% in the South East. Early marriage, early childbirth and a general unwillingness to invest in the education of girls because they are viewed as second class citizens are just some of the reasons for this. In the age group 15-24, 1 in 3 women and girls has been a victim of violence.  Where there is an entrenched culture of violence and where perpetrators are rarely made to pay for their crimes, you can see why so few women ever report offences of violence against them.

The last intersection that I would like to look at is that of gender and religion.  It’s very closely linked to the intersection above as some might say religion is an aspect of culture.  I think it’s important enough to be mentioned on its own as an area where women are disproportionately affected. Ask a religious leader whether violence against women is wrong and you’re likely to hear that it is and the practice of it condemned.  However, scratch the surface and a different story emerges.  Where religion is significant in the life of a woman, one of the first people she is likely to turn to for help in a violent situation is her spiritual leader.  Some are very good and unequivocally denounce the violence.  However, the experience of many women is that they are somehow blamed for the violence.  Questions like: what did you do to make him angry?” or “why didn’t you have his food ready?” abound.  Women are ‘advised’ to modify their behaviour in order to avoid violence.  These questions and advice miss the point in my view.  The perpetrator chooses to use violence, to maintain his power and control in the relationship.  Violence isn’t caused by anger; it’s caused by the perpetrator seeking to retain control.  Some of the worst advice I’ve heard about how to handle domestic violence has been given by pastors.  Given the numbers of women experiencing violence, a modern day pastor needs to educate themselves about the causes of violence, so they can give advice that helps, rather than harms.

The fact of the matter is that we all have different facets to our identities and inequality and discrimination cannot be put away neatly in a box marked ‘gender’ or ‘race’ or ‘religion’.  We experience the pain as a whole and it affects us a whole.

As I end my piece this week, I invite you to think about where the intersections are in your own life.  How has gender inequality, discrimination or violence affected you? How has it been made worse by the intersections?

Have you been affected by anything in this piece? Would you like to know more about how we can help? Contact us through the website for a free 30 minute consultation.

Until next week, go well.

[1] The term comes out of a metaphor coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Decisions, decisions...

My daughter has been reading some interactive Peppa Pig stories.  One of the stories is set at a fair and Mummy Pig keeps getting told that she can’t win the big teddies.  She gets very cross indeed and goes on to win all the teddies (my kind of woman!) I wonder if she’s a feminist???

At the moment, you’re probably wondering if you’re reading the wrong blog.  Never fear, you’re in the right place.  Reading the story with my daughter reminded me of the spirited debate I was involved in a few weeks back, in an online forum.  A contributor asserted that it wasn’t right to try and increase the number of women in senior positions, by means of a quota system or the threat of a quota system, or indeed by any kind of affirmative action.  The main thrust of his argument was that women made choices and those choices led to the outcomes that we see, in terms of lower numbers of women in senior positions.  Women aren’t occupying those positions because they work fewer hours than men and most women just want to be home looking after their children anyway, so they don’t go for senior positions.  I don’t know about all of you out there, but my brain didn’t go into retirement, just because I had a baby.  What I have noticed though is that my professional choices do seem to have narrowed considerably since I became a mother.

The issue of gender inequality is one that just won’t go away- partly because it’s so entrenched and partly because it’s so pervasive.  It’s important to recognise the fact that sex is biological.  I am a woman because I have breasts and a vagina. Gender on the other hand is a social construct.  It’s a whole set of ideas, theories and beliefs about how men and women should behave.  Because it’s a social construct, it is my hope that we can actually change the construct and move towards gender equality. 

Gender inequality starts early and you see it in the way that boys and girls are socialised and the codes of behaviour that each gender is expected to adhere to.  I remember my then 4 year old niece laughing when I said a man on the telly was cooking.  She said “aunty, men don’t go in the kitchen, only women do”.  She was repeating what she had seen and heard in only 4 years of life.  Gender inequality comes in many guises and a lot of effort is expended in maintaining the structure of it.  One such disguise is that all mothers want to leave the workplace once they have children.  That’s simply not true.  Some women do, others don’t. For those who want to work as well as have a family, it requires near superhero powers.  Women are still expected to take on the lion’s share of domestic duties and childcare.  Sometimes it feels like feminism just gave us the right to have 2 jobs!  Women have to find ways of adapting and managing their lives, in order to fit everything in.  One way that they do this is by becoming self employed.  The number of women entrepreneurs is growing daily-even in the current economic climate.

Lists, quotas or the threat of quotas, those things don’t change things in and of themselves.  They have to be backed up by action.  Action that makes a real difference in women’s lives.  Resources directed to areas that will genuinely empower women, not just in the setting up of new agencies to monitor/police gender.

Something else I’ve noticed is that when we speak about gender, it seems to have become synonymous with women.  When the discussion starts from that premise, it runs the risk of becoming a very polarised subject, with men and women each fighting their corners.   I see that all the time, in discussions with the language quickly becoming very divisive and inflammatory.   Gender equality is not about a ‘one size fits all’ approach.  It’s about finding solutions that works for both men and women.  A deeply entrenched belief is that all men are ruthless, driven and want to work every hour in the day.  Some men will identify with that.  On the other hand there are other men, who would like a bit more balance between work and family life.  I don’t know many people who would say on their deathbeds, “I wish I would have worked even harder”.  True gender equality has the space to accommodate the different paths that people wish to take in their lives.

Lastly, it seems to be impossible to talk about gender, without talking about feminism.  Contrary to what a lot of people think, they are not one and the same thing.  This post isn’t a treatise on feminism.  However, I think it’s important to remember that a lot of the gains that women who resist the label ‘feminist’ take for granted were achieved through the feminist movement.  Is it a perfect movement? No, but why would you expect it to be, since it consists of fallible human beings.  In the end, it all comes down to a simple question: what does feminism mean to you? In its broadest sense, feminism is about the fight to achieve social, political and economic equality. For me personally, it’s about choice.  My ability to make choices, unhindered by my gender.  At the moment, the rules of the game have been set by men, who don’t take time out to have children and who are usually not the main carers for those children.  The women who make it on these terms either have no children or have enough help, for it never to become an issue in the workplace.

As I end this week’s post, I remember Malala, the young Pakistani woman shot because she was pursuing her right to get an education.  A choice that the Taliban would deny her.  A choice that many of us take for granted.   Every day we get to make hundreds of choices.  Let’s commit to making choices that help to change our world, one woman at a time.

Are you feeling a bit stuck in life, unsure of what choices to make next? Contact us through the website to find out how coaching can help you.

Until next week, go well.




Thursday, 15 November 2012 we go again...

Those of you who read my blog regularly know how much I simultaneously love and dread Thursdays.  As soon as I’ve posted one blog, I start wondering about what I’m going to write about the following week.

I had fallen into that familiar groove this week, when I had an ‘aha’ moment.  I blog about things and causes that I am passionate about- my core values.  Because of that, I’m going to keep returning to key themes for me, like gender equality, violence against women, leadership and change.   So this week’s blog is about the benefits of repetition.  How does it help us learn? How many times do we need to repeat something before we master it? What can we do to help us remember things?

Repetition is actually the most basic technique for learning something.  Concert pianists, Olympic gymnasts and world class racing car drivers all know this.  That’s why they spend hours practising their skills, so that it becomes second nature.  Although we’re not all world class athletes, I’m sure we all have some experience of learning something new and having to practice and keep practising, until we felt confident about what we were doing.  I still remember that magic moment when I realised that rather than learning to be a coach, I was actually coaching my clients!

Increased confidence is a wonderful side effect of repetition.  The more we repeat something, the more confident we become about doing it.  I remember getting ready to sit for some important exams and just going over the material over and over again. I was extremely confident that I knew the material and would ace the exam.  That came in really handy when I realised I’d been revising for the wrong exam.  It was a choice between a re-sit or take my chances. I took my chances and it turned out to be my best grade!

Finally, what can we do to help us to remember things better? Well, on that front, there’s a whole plethora of techniques out there, designed to enhance our retention skills.  Some folk swear by mnemonics.  The most common form of a mnemonic is an acronym.  The first letter of each word reminds us of a key principle and the acronym itself usually spells out a word or phrase.  I came across a good one recently: H.A.L.T.  It’s to remind you not to allow yourself to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (helps with emotional eating).  Other tips include linking a picture with whatever it is you are trying to learn.  I used to visualise the pad where I had written my notes, to jog my memory.

I’m sure some of you are wondering what repetition has got to do with coaching.  Well, most people come to coaching because they have recognised that there are things they would like to change in their lives.  However, change is scary-even change that we instigate ourselves.  During the coaching process, as you pick up new skills and techniques to make change, your coach supports you as you put them into practice.  I’ve read that it takes 21 days to form a habit.  If you repeat something for 21 days, you’re more likely to make it a long term practice.  A coach can help you identify what behaviours you might want to lose, what behaviours you might want to develop and hold you accountable on your journey.

Personally, I hope that as I re-visit themes, principles and ideas, that I do so in a fresh and exciting way every time.  That practice really does make perfect.

If you’d like to find out more about how coaching can help you, please contact us through the website.

Until next week, go well.