International Women’s Day 2020: A Panel Discussion

Categories: Aperian Global News, Diversity & Inclusion

For 2020’s International Women’s Day, Aperian Global gathered together a diverse group of female employees from around the world to share their thoughts on what the day means to them – and much more. 

This is what they had to say.

The panel is:

-Mercedes Martin (West Palm Beach, Florida, United States), Director of Consulting, Diversity & Inclusion

-Freeda Fernandes (Singapore), Director – APAC Sales

-Anja Stentoft Jacobsen (Copenhagen, Denmark), Product Manager & Consultant

The theme of 2020’s International Women’s Day is “Each for Equal.” What does that phrase mean to you when it comes to your career?

FREEDA: When I read this question, I realized that it’s very often what we speak to our clients about at Aperian Global. It’s really not about women for women – it’s really about everyone supporting each other, irrespective of differences. It’s about how we can all grow together and collectively be better as a group. It’s not about lifting one group up and saying women need or deserve a better place at the cost of excluding others – which happens very often in organizations. 

Another thought – and this comes from my role specifically being in sales. Sometimes we think of inclusion as something limited to being within your own organization. However, clients can also be inclusive – I’ve seen it with suppliers and vendors. I’ve had such beautiful experiences working with inclusive clients, and some not-so-great experiences with clients that are not. 

ANJA: I struggled a little bit with this question. I really had to think deeper about it, especially when it concerns my career. I think it comes from growing up in Denmark, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. It’s a very fundamental value of mine, that every human being is valuable, and should have a voice and be treated with respect – irrespective of their gender.

In Denmark, we have a very individualistic approach to gender equality, in the sense that men and women are individuals to be treated as such. So, although we still have quite a way to go before true gender equality, I think “each for equal” has been my experience throughout my career. I think it also speaks to the philosophy of “individual action for collective success,” if you will. That’s the very fabric of the Danish culture, to me.

MERCEDES: The word that really resonated with me, along with the theme of “each for equal” was “collective.” I love the word “collective.” To me, it means that all of us have a say or a responsibility to create this gender-equal world. Sometimes, I think we focus on the fact that it’s just the problems involving women that need to get fixed, or the men that need to get fixed – but it needs to be collaborative so that all genders and all identities around gender get included. 

Going off that, I think there’s another point that needs to come up. I’m a woman, a refugee, and an immigrant. I think this discussion gives an opportunity to talk about refugees and immigrants and other groups that are underrepresented. When we talk about gender equity, there tends to be a propensity to focus on the majority group in the country or region.

So this theme of “each for equal” provides another opportunity to highlight the idea of intersectionality. When we talk about women, what is the bridge? Are we giving voices to black and Latina and Asian women and from all different types of backgrounds? So, I’m excited about this theme, as someone passionate around diversity and inclusion issues for a long time, and a big advocate for both all my life. Additionally, this theme also helps me to showcase some of my experiences when it comes to having that dual identity – as a woman of black and Latina ethnicity. It helps me to talk and think about equity in a rather holistic fashion. 

What women support and inspire you on your career path? These examples can include leaders, celebrities, trailblazers, colleagues, family, etc.

MERCEDES: I come from a matriarchal family, especially on my mother’s side. So I’ve had an army of women that I admire, including many mentors and sponsors that have supported me throughout my life and career.

The one that comes to mind, especially for this theme and topic, was my grandmother, lovingly called “Yeya.” She came from a black mom with a history of slavery in Cuba and a Chinese father. When we arrived here in the United States in the early 1960s, she had a fourth-grade education. She was able to establish and support a lot of the refugee families that came into the area by taking care of their children while everyone else was working and trying to find jobs, (usually cleaning floors or factory work), learn English in night school after work in order to return to their professional careers. So today, with that immigrant theme in the air, she’s the one that comes to mind, not only because of what she did but because of how she did it. It was total love. She was “on purpose” – that’s what we would call it today. That’s what I aspire to, always.

FREEDA: It’s funny, I’m also thinking grandmother! I come from India, which is a very patriarchal society. My grandmother is someone who raised seven children after her husband died while she was still fairly young. She raised all of them, sent some of them to school, and saw them move away and start their lives.

I saw that same determination and resilience when my mom took over and raised her four children – two boys and two girls. I think it’s interesting to reflect on equality at home. In most Indian homes, for example, the men eat first, and the women are there to kind of serve and support men. However, in my house, my brothers cooked and cleaned – in fact, I was the youngest, so I got away from all household chores! 

When I went to college, then, it was shocking to find out that there were people automatically questioning my abilities – because I came from a home where everyone got treated equally. Gender was never even a thing! 

So, I have to mention my grandmother and my mom, along with some colleagues that I’ve worked with – Mui Hwa Ng and Simone-Eva Redrupp. Especially as someone who had to juggle two roles: a job and motherhood. I did struggle initially, but they told me, “Your daughter’s looking at you, and you’re her role model.” 

That was so meaningful for me because every time I felt kind of beaten down, I’d think, “Okay, she tries to do everything I do.” So that inspires me in my life and career. 

ANJA: I’ve looked up to many a person, both men and women, that have believed in the purpose they were able to articulate and create a movement for change. Especially with the less fortunate – transferring that fight against inequality to every human, men and women alike.

Growing up in 1970s Denmark, I remember some of those strong women fighting for women’s rights. They were students in Denmark called the “Rødstrømpebevægelsen.” It was a feminist movement inspired by the “Red Stockings” in the United States. Their overall purpose was to end what they saw as a capitalist, patriarchal society. They were everywhere, and took that battle everywhere – in homes, at work, in politics, even in the bedroom. There’s little doubt they’ve left a mark that’s present today, and their burning passion fueled me through my early years.

Also, I’ve had many other influences over the years. My grandmothers both worked, and so did my mother. Household chores were divided – even with my grandparents – with an eye to who had the time and who had the skills. Growing up, my dad – who was very handy – very much welcomed my sister and me into his toolshed and showed us the different names of the tools and how to fix cars, for example. Also, he and my mother would help each other out, fixing the house and sharing their household chores – except for cooking. He wasn’t very good at that!

What gender-specific challenges, stereotypes, or barriers have you had to overcome during your career?

ANJA: I’ve been fortunate to be part of an industry that is very inclusive for many years, and one that treats people with the respect they deserve. The biggest one for me, actually, was the expectation that I would take the vast majority of parental leave when I was pregnant with my two children. In Denmark, there is paternity leave and maternity leave, and it’s been around for many years. I definitely felt an expectation to take most of it and not share it equally with my husband. This is some 12 years ago now, so it has changed some, but I think women still take most of the parental leave, which is also a big reason why there is still a gender pay gap in Denmark. 

FREEDA: When I looked at this question, I thought, “Well, where do I start?” It made me angry to go back and relive some of those experiences. As I said, I was raised in a household where everyone was equal, and I went to an all-girls school. After that, I started in engineering, and specifically, industrial engineering. I was shortlisted to support QA on the shop floor of an automotive company, and there are lots of questions that people ask you – and then you start hearing those questions, and then you start doubting yourself.

After that, I knew what I didn’t want to do. That’s how I landed in sales. When I came back home and told my mom about my career, she was so supportive – but when I talked to my friends and others about it, the comments were, “I don’t know if women can survive in sales.” But I went into that field, and the first two years of my career were the most grueling two years of my life. I was selling technology, trying to get in touch with CIOs, heading to the outskirts and industrial areas of places like Bangalore. 

It was a threat to my safety physically. There were a lot of people saying, “This is not a good job for you,” and saying that women should not be doing sales. I had to fight for it. There were 50 or more management trainees next to me that got into sales, and at the end of it, there were two women around me – it was a show filled with men.

So just having to stand up and speak for myself, that’s what I learned. I also understood that bias exists, and I had to learn it the hard way. There were lots and lots of barriers. When  I joined a company’s management team, there were five men, and I was the only female on that team. I started questioning myself again – am I just a token hire? Have they hired me just because they needed representation? 

I stuck with it, and then, every time I had an idea for them, their responses were, “Wow, we never could’ve thought of it.” So, my lesson was to continually give myself that credit every time I faced self-doubt – and know to speak up when it felt like someone doubted me because of my gender.

MERCEDES: It took me a while to come up with my answer – not necessarily because I had so many, but I had to decide what area of my career to zone in on. What I noticed in – well, let’s just call it the “latter years” is this phenomenon of needing to negotiate on pricing, cost, the value that I bring, much more than my male counterpart. I get the doors open, but then I’m struggling to have more conversations on my daily or hourly rate. It’s about compensation or economic inclusion – making it clear that gender issues are power issues.

The other gender inequality that I’m finding now in my career is that I get introduced and brought in when “the s*&t hits the fan.” I get brought in when it’s a mess. I’m valued and given the accolades for working through that mess, but then at the end of that, I still have to negotiate compensation and be clear on what I’m worth. I think that starts very early in our career, I guess I’m seeing it now because I’m more confident, and now that I see it, I’m naming the experience and cognizant that gender but race as well contribute to this dynamic.  

How do you think the mission of Aperian Global ties into the theme of “Each for Equal” celebrated this International Women’s Day?

MERCEDES: Our mission at Aperian Global is to support effective boundary-crossing for higher business performance. I see gender inequality as one of those boundaries that impact business performance. I also often see gender not just as a diversity dimension – how can you talk about that as a diversity dimension when it’s 50-52 percent of your workforce? I see gender as a business dimension, and one of those boundaries that need to be looked at. So, it’s an opportunity for us to provide leadership, to overcome that hurdle, and cross that bridge of a boundary called “gender inequality.” Given our global stance, we’re in a place to talk about global gender inequality. 

I find it interesting that we talk about global business, global viruses, global everything – but when it comes to gender, we put global for celebration but not necessarily for the systemic institutional and local change. I think that with our work and our research and our knowledge base across boundaries, countries, and regions, we have an opportunity to lift the conversation.

FREEDA: I think for me, Aperian’s mission is so tied into the theme – we’re all about supporting and enabling individuals, teams, and organizations to work effectively and cross boundaries. As Mercedes said, gender is one of those boundaries. We work with individuals to help them get to know themselves better and go deep into thinking, “Okay, these are my thoughts and this reality,” and then helping them do this without any shame.

We take them to a place of openness and allow them to go beyond and work across differences, whether it’s gender or culture or anything else. We can help them transform organizations, enabling them to move and change. That’s such a great place for us to be in! 

I feel like so many organizations are stuck in this place where they’re just superficially supporting the women, causing them to think more about their self-limiting beliefs. Then, I think that puts you in a place where you feel the onus of changing who you are in order to succeed. That can be so dangerous for women. I feel like I went through that before, and Aperian doesn’t do that. We don’t necessarily go into an organization and say, “Okay, let’s fix your women.” Instead, we say, “Let’s everyone get together and talk openly about what we feel, irrespective of gender.” I think that puts us in a unique place in terms of how we approach this. 

ANJA: As I thought about this, I thought about people that go through therapy. It strikes me how inward-looking that therapy sometimes is, and I come to think of the beauty of what we do at Aperian Global is to enable each individual to have an outward look upon their presence in the world and how to engage inclusively with that reality. I think that goes for gender, and I think that goes for cultures – or anything that people get formed from. That’s precisely why I’ve worked at Aperian Global for the last 15 years. It’s that mission. I do believe we are making a small difference every day and helping people understand each other better and work together better, which stretches beyond gender, but certainly also pushes the status on gender equality.

Learn strategies for men, women, and organizations to mitigate gender bias

While we acknowledge the progress made for gender equality in the workplace, women are still not seeing equal opportunities for promotion into leadership roles, career advancement, or fair compensation. It is important that we continue to recognize unseen barriers and opportunities in order to support the development of female leaders. Download this Quick Guide to learn strategies for men, women, and organizations to mitigate gender bias and accelerate career growth for female leaders.