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The Mean Girls Need To Grow Up.

Lou and I met Gemma Tognini and her partner in crime Amber Sheldon from GT Media last year and have had a bit of girl crush on them since. Both incredible ladies with impressive careers, they have always been kind enough to catch up for coffee and act as mentors. It is with that that Lou and I bow down to Gemma’s latest article, which has seen national coverage for a cause that we too believe needs to be addressed. As the saying goes, practice what you preach and Gemma is an outstanding example of what modern career women should aim to be both in her business achievements but most importantly her approach to the sisterhood.

This is not a column about statistics. It's one about attitude. 

Given the heart of what I want to share may not be that popular with some, let me make my position perfectly clear from the outset. 

Structured initiatives to ensure gender equality are incredibly important. The issue is complex and cannot be solved by a singular response.  

It is not okay, and will never be okay, that women who do the same job as men are paid less.  

Having influential men to champion this cause is critical. CEO based initiatives like Male Champions for Change, are especially powerful because they can tackle the issue from the very top. And it sends the message that addressing gender equality is everyone's job. It is the kind of initiative that changes culture.

Now, here's the fun part.

What I also believe, strongly and from my own experience, is there is an important thread to this conversation that only women can address, and until we do, no lasting or meaningful change can occur.  Put simply, it's time for the Mean Girls to grow up. 

Step back in time with me for a minute and I'll paint you a picture. I'm just 22 and it's my first week as a TV journalist. I'm ready to change the world – one local crime yarn at a time. I'm hopeful and excited.

That is until a senior colleague walked past me and sneered under their breath "You need to do something about that hair of yours. You always look so f*****g unkempt." 

That colleague was a woman and that morning I learned a tough lesson: sisterhood can be selective. The sisterhood can be just as corrupt as any club (of any gender) anywhere that excludes and denies, obstructs and restricts. 

Fast forward to late last year. I'm sitting around a boardroom table. Unbeknown to me, I'm a day away from being named WA Business Owner of the year in the 2014 Telstra Business Womens' Awards.  

There are a dozen or more outstanding, successful women at breakfast, swapping stories of how we came to be seated together that morning.  When it's my turn to speak, I hesitate because of what's on my mind. 

It's strange for me to be a finalist in a Business Women's award forum, I say. Because with less than a handful of exceptions, women have never really supported my career.

Every significant mentor, every person who has opened doors for me, invested in my company or me as a businesswoman, has been a man.

Often at times, women gave me hell along the way. I've spent a lot of time pulling knives out of my back. Shiny, pink knives. 

To be honest, I had expected the awkward minute of silence before being stoned for heresy forthwith.  But what happened both saddened and strangely validated me. 

Around the table, heads were nodding in agreement. Our stories were in part, the same.

Madelaine Albright nailed it in one when she said there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.  Seems to me that it is probably a crowded place.

My experiences and the experiences of my female friends and colleagues are not unfortunate examples at the periphery, they are reoccurring, and they are endemic.  

We undermine not just each others' professional ability, but worse, how we look. How we dress. The very behavior that, were a man behind it, there'd be an uproar. 

It's a terrible double standard. 

Take this one for example. A friend and colleague, a successful professional with international experience and a ridiculously high work ethic was counseled by HR to consider her personal brand because HR had overheard chatter amongst female colleagues who didn't like how she dressed for the office.

I wish I were kidding. My friend was advised by her boss (a man) to ignore the pettiness of the complaint because it was nothing but jealousy. 

Another colleague tells of her (former) female boss who consistently undermined her, took credit for her work, and sidelined her and other women in their advancement, until eventually, most left.  

I could go on but you get my drift. The Mean Girls need to grow up. 

What I believe to be the inconvenient truth of the gender debate is this. Women experience unacceptable treatment at the hands of other women, while others turn a blind eye.  

The same behavior at the hands of men would be, rightly, called out and dealt with. 

The important truth is this. How, we as women, treat each other is just as important as how men, policy and the system treat us. And I also believe that the job starts long before a woman decides on a career.

It starts with how we raise our girls. There is so much focus on teaching young boys to respect women (as there rightly should be) but why not bring the same focus on teaching young girls how to respect men and each other.

To love themselves first, then cheer for each other without fear of somehow missing out.

True equality is impossible without mutual respect. Women and only women can address this and bring change. Quotas will not. Legislation will not. 

Change lies in the attitudes and the actions we bring every single day. It's offering to help. It's recommending work and giving credit where it is due. It's opening doors. Investing time. It's about collective ownership of a way of acting that doesn't clothe anyone in glory and saying, no more. It's saying - change starts with me and it starts today. 

I'm so glad to say that in the last six months, primarily through the Telstra Business Women's and CBA Women in Focus network, I have met some incredible women who are walking the talk.

Women like Brookfield's Sharon Warburton who is a mentoring machine and confidently and energetically champions other women. 

Like CBA's Olivia Ruello who is passionate about connecting and advancing professional women in their careers. These are just two of many, but my point is, we need to stop looking at female colleagues as competition and start to champion their advancement. 

What matters is what we're doing. Not what we call ourselves. 

Case in point. During her recent address to the National Press Club our Foreign Minister had the temerity to say she doesn't consider herself a feminist. 

Commentators, feminists and journalists around the country drew a collective breath of horror at the notion that the Foreign Minister didn't want to wear a label, a theme that has been followed up with more reportage this past week. 

What they fail to realise is that this miffed posturing was just another example of women beating up on other women. It is nastiness in the name of progressivism.

Instead of cheering Ms Bishop on her achievements, and her publically stated desire to "do the very best I can to make it easier for those who follow me", her critics, overwhelmingly women, verbally assaulted her from the sidelines for failing to wear a label and the club hoodie.  

One headline even dared to ask "Why is Julie Bishop so afraid of feminism?".  

I'll wager the Foreign Minister is more concerned about choosing the wrong emoji for a tweet than she is afraid of Feminism. 

The Mean Girls need to grow up. And we need to stop accepting the label of victim. Equality in the real sense does not position women as victims, nor relegate our professional advancement to the realms of filling a quota or ticking a box on a compliance form.

To me, and to my female peers in corporate life, the idea of being offered the consolation prize of career progression or board membership to ensure gender compliance is a pretty outstanding insult.

I'm honoured to sit on two boards and neither of those positions was offered to me because I lack a male appendage. But that's a discussion for another day. 

Do I call myself a feminist? Ultimately, no-one should care. What matters is what I do. What matters is that I run a company that employs women – six of them, three of them mothers, two of them who work flexible hours. 

What matters is that I am a mentor. At last count to two women and a man. Of varying backgrounds in varying professions.

Wearing a label doesn't mean anything other than you're wearing a label. I wildly applaud the men who are making a way for women, and those who have helped make a way for me.

But the bottom line is that if we want real change, we need to participate in the day to day heavy lifting.  The boring, but ever so important every day stuff that doesn't pull headlines.

I'm not 22 anymore (thank goodness) but I remain hopeful, and excited. Because I know that we can do better. Women can do better. We owe it to ourselves.

Gemma Tognini is the founder and managing director of gtmedia strategic communication, a corporate communication and PR firm with local, national and global clients.

She spent 10 years as a television journalist and chief of staff before starting her company in 2003. She is a Telstra Business Womens' Award Winner and sits on the boards of the Salvation Army (WA) and the Starlight Childrens Foundation (WA).

 

The above text was taken from the WA Today article here

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