Reflections: International Women’s Day 2019

A day too late, but happy International Women’s Day!

I had the pleasure to attend the International Women’s Day event hosted by the Ladies Club Amsterdam last night. It was an inspiring evening with a small, but impressive group of women who came together to share their stories of success, strength, vulnerability, and sometimes failure.

In total, there were three panels: Balance for Better, The Corporate Ladder and Entrepreneurial Deep Dive. Conversations revolved around progressing in the corporate world, pros and cons of quotas for women on boards, the importance of mentorship, dodging burnout, the role of language in empowering women, tackling unconscious gender bias and more. I didn’t anticipate the dialogue at the event to be as honest, so I was pleasantly surprised by the candor of all panelists and participants.

About 80 percent of the attendees were corporate women and being one myself, I was naturally most drawn to the panel about climbing the corporate ladder. Qiuling Tsar, RA Partner at Ernst & Young and Evalinde Eelens, FRM CAIA Board Member & Supervisor, Delta Lloyd Pension Fund–both under the age of 40–were the shining stars of this panel. I greatly enjoyed listening to them and thought would summarize the most useful points from their discussion.

Find a mentor. Not just any mentor, but someone who’s influential and possesses decision-making abilities. Both panelists agreed that in most organizations it’s men who’re the decision makers, so they advised to not hesitate in approaching them for career advice and making them your allies.

A woman in the audience asked for tips on finding a mentor when one’s self-employed or employed by a small company. Eelens had a great response to that. “Look for the person you most admire in your entire network (school, college, previous employers, friends of friends) and approach them for advice. If they don’t respond, go to the second most influential and admirable person, and so on.”

I definitely agree with their suggestion to not exclusively pick women to mentor you. Pick the person with the most influence–someone who’ll have the position to back you when time demands it. And there is no cap on how many mentors you can have, so reach out to as many people for advice and let relationships take their organic course!

Use language wisely. We cannot disagree that language has an implicit impact. Being mindful of our language when talking about ourselves or other women is one way to shift mindsets. An example that came up during the panel discussion was the use of the word “girl” for grown women. Eelens urged that we use ladies or women, and I completely agree with her. 

Girl has an implicit tone and meaning that no grown woman would like to be associated with, especially in the workplace. This may seem like a small point, but there are several studies that highlight the link between gender bias and language. So much so that we now have a Slack plug-in that detects gender-biased language! About time.

Quotas or no quotas? Board quotas have been part of the gender equality conversation in the corporate world for over a decade. Many countries like Norway establish quota laws for women on boards of listed companies, while others like Britain publish guidelines for women representation on boards.

There has been mixed research about the effectiveness of quotas. Tsar shared that several years ago she was told off by a colleague that her promotion to a managerial role was to fill the “women quota.” Eelens shared that she’s often approached by headhunters who ignore her competencies and focus on her candidacy as a “non-Dutch, under forty woman.”

There was discussion around the pros and cons of quotas and, understandably, the group seemed largely divided. Do we want to be hired for being women? Shouldn’t the best candidate, regardless of their gender, get the job? In principle, I don’t think setting quotas would lead to effective leadership and decision-making or gender equality for that matter. They may be the lesser of all evil options we’ve, like Eelens pointed out in our conversation, but are quotas yielding results?

I’d argue that processes need to be initiated bottom-up to ensure women are hired, nurtured, and retained in a way that allows them to gain the experience and knowledge they need to become competitive candidates for senior leadership roles. Quotas alone, in my opinion, aren’t effective.

Besides the corporate ladder panel, I also enjoyed listening to the brave stories of women who survived burnout in the Balance for Better panel. Supervised by two burnout coaches, we completed an exercise that indicates individual stress levels. You’ve to set the timer for one minute and count your breaths. One inhale and exhale makes up one breath. Taking over 12 breaths in a minute is an indication of stress. I came at 25 breaths in a minute–no wonder, I’m taking today to de-stress!

It was the first time in my three years of living in Amsterdam that I attended a Women’s Day event. Sometimes the corporate gifts and shallow celebratory messages can hijack the history and essence of International Women’s Day. Women don’t want flowers and chocolate from their employers. We want initiatives that would enable equal pay and equal opportunity. The energy and conversations last night reminded me of the long way women’ve come since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, and reinforced that a lot more work has to be done until we close the gender gap.

Hope all you ladies reading found something useful in this reflection. Let’s not wait until March 8 next year to empower ourselves and the women around us. Start today, start now–keep the conversation and energy going!




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