Women Supporting Women

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The empowerment of one woman has the potential to unlock the potential of any number of women she is connected to in work and in our community. So what could be better than a book dedicated to women supporting women? Well, that’s just want esteemed Company Director Dr. Kirsten Ferguson and Walkley-award winning journalist Catherine Fox, have produced - Woman Kind. They spoke to us about their careers and what drove them to write on this topic.

Last year, you launched the incredible social media campaign #CelebratingWomen, where you shone a spotlight on two incredible women everyday. What prompted you to start this campaign?

Kirstin: I started #CelebratingWomen because I had had enough. I love using social media but was fed up with seeing the ways women were being treated online. I wanted to see more celebration, and less denigration, of women online. I believe every woman is a role model to someone else, whether they realise it or not, and so I wanted to share women’s stories and see those women celebrated. I made a very public commitment to try and celebrate two women every day and from all walks of life. I had no idea where I was going to find so many women willing to share personal stories and photos and worried the whole idea might fizzle out very quickly. But much to my surprise, and thanks to so many women who were willing to put themselves forward as role models to others, I ended up celebrating 757 women from 37 countries and inadvertently created a movement of women around the world celebrating and supporting one another.

We love your idea that we should all forget the idea of the corporate ladder and that we can all bring many women up together. Tell us more.

Kirstin: We have always been told that if we should be so successful to achieve our own goals, whatever they might be, we must remember to drop the ladder back down behind us to help another woman up. Well I think we need to forget the ladder. A ladder will only ever help one woman at a time and is designed so that you hold on tight, so you don’t fall, ultimately blocking the way for others.

What I learnt through #CelebratingWomen is that we can throw down a fishing net and bring up many women together. We can all hold the sides of the fishing net and it removes this idea of competing for that one spot at the top of the ladder. We all benefit when women rise up together.

While researching this book, what showed up that surprised and delighted you?

Catherine: I hadn’t realised what a long and sustained history there was behind women’s solidarity - not just the suffragettes but well before them, with women striking for better pay and conditions in the mid-nineteenth century and the work of community organisations like the YWCA and the CWA. Some of these bodies have been trivialised and even ridiculed despite helping women in poverty and women suffering from domestic violence over many decades, which made me think this collective action has gone under the radar for centuries. Women helping each other through unwanted pregnancies and in violent marriages; looking out for their sisters, daughters and mothers. 

On a personal level, the research of so many networks and women’s groups made me understand how much women’s support for each other has been hidden by necessity because it was at best the target of jokes and at worst seen as threatening. And I realised I could do much more to support women in all kinds of settings - by backing and amplifying them, ensuring their voices are heard. 

You’ve spoken about the positive impact men can have by working alongside women. How can women speak up so that men in power listen to our voices?

Catherine: Seize the moment, I say. This is the time to speak up because, frankly, the social media movements of the last 18 months have been deeply unsettling for many men and particularly those running organisations. Many men had no idea that harassment and sexism was so widespread and are shocked by the evidence of thousands of women. The men in leadership also see the reputational damage that can emerge when women are ignored and they are listening like never before instead of expecting women to prove the case over and over again. 

While interviewing for the book, and in the last few weeks speaking to audiences of women around Australia, so many have told me they are speaking out now about these issues in a way they never would have dreamed of a year ago. That’s because the men they work with are finally listening to them - and some are stepping up beside them too. Women have always known how to speak up but faced penalties for doing just that because their male colleagues didn’t believe them and failed to take them seriously. But that’s changing fast. 

Why are workplaces so obsessed with fixing women?

Catherine: It’s so much easier to disband the deficit model that defines how we see women in the workforce - risk-averse, low confidence and ambition that wanes after having a baby - than disrupting the status quo.

The deficit model means men are never involved and their behaviour and attitudes go unchallenged - and that’s the messy, unpopular and often emotional part of tackling gender inequity. Telling women they need fixing leaves the current rules and practices untouched but also holds out the false promise that behaving in a certain way (very much based on masculine norms) will deliver success - and that’s simply not the case for anyone.

Fixing women doesn’t just hamper progress, it hinders change. Lecturing women and telling them to buck up, lean in, network and negotiate better, reinforces all the stereotypes that caused the problem in the first place. Some of this advice may occasionally allow a few women to take a step ahead. But if it was truly effective then there would have been a significant increase in the overall numbers of women in management/leadership and in male dominated sectors, a decrease in the gender pay gap and a boost to women’s retirement earnings.

What do you believe is the secret sauce to women supporting women? What’s one thing each of us can do to support other women?

Kirstin: Women are already supporting other women in their lives every single day. Whether it is catching up with a girlfriend who is having a hard time, mentoring a woman at work, helping mind a friend’s child while they go for a job interview or making a positive comment on a social media post about an achievement. There is no limit to the ways we can support each other, yet too often the ways women support other women, whether through simple everyday tasks or more formal ways such as women’s networks, have not been taken seriously or have been denigrated as being a waste of time.

The shift I think we have seen over recent years, and social media has made it much more pronounced, is that women are no longer shying away from loudly and proudly celebrating one another. And even better, we are joining together to support each other in ways that really drive substantive change. Carrie Gracie, who became the public face of the BBC women seeking pay equality, captures the power behind women supporting women brilliantly. In an interview with the New Yorker she said “The reason the BBC thought they could get away with it is that they hadn’t factored in the multiplier effect of solidarity. If you tell me I’m rubbish, I might believe you, but if you tell me she’s rubbish I know it’s not true.”   

Dr Kirstin Ferguson and Catherine Fox’s new book, Women Kind, is published by Women Kind and is available on Booktopia.

Elisa Pizarro