My 11-year-old daughter came home several weeks ago with a homework project: “Pick your favorite explorer.” Her instructor had given her a list of options to choose from—a laundry list of men. Not one was a woman explorer. Mind you, this is 2017 Ireland—we had just had a big ceremony celebrating LGBT rights. And here my daughter was sent home with a list of blokes.
Knowing full well the list could have been entirely filled with incredible women explorers in world history—everyone from Amelia Earhart to Jane Goodall, the list goes on—I took my daughter aside and encouraged her to defy the rules: Choose a woman anyway. She ended up doing her project on world-renowned explorer Isabella Bird who traveled the world in the 1850s to Hawaii, Colorado, Japan, Malaysia, and writing all the time, making way for other explorers. Her teacher loved it. The lesson? In the end it, it pays to break the rules if it’s to do the right thing—and advancing gender equality could never be more right than now.
In today’s global political climate, we need to fight for women’s equality and leadership more than ever. Women work hard to bring home 44 percent of their family’s income yet still earn just 77 cents to every dollar a man makes in the same job. Women are still called the pejorative “bossy” when a man is called confident for the same self-assured behavior.
And in a year when the world thought we might finally see the first woman “leader of the free world” be elected in the United States, the results couldn’t have been more reflective of the work we all still need to do to eradicate sexist perceptions about women. On the one hand, we saw a woman candidate who had devoted more than 30 years to public service, yet the level of vitriol toward her was phenomenal and unfounded. (Had she been a man, people would call her commitment to her husband loyalty.) On the other hand, we saw a man candidate get rewarded for saying atrocious, unacceptable things about women and minorities. Do women in leadership stand a chance at meeting their full potential when a man who behaves this way triumphs over a woman who is not only exceptionally qualified on paper but conducts herself with maturity, basic decency, and professionalism? Everyone in the world witnessed what happened—including the world’s little girls and young women. Is this the example they need to see? We have a lot of work to do to change the stigma around women in leadership.
Women in Action
At Skillsoft, we’ve already rolled up our sleeves with our Women in Action initiative—the digital learning industry’s first program specifically designed and curated to help women across the global workforce build specific competencies and immediately apply newly acquired skills. Through using the program ourselves since it’s initiation a little over a year ago, we have already increased Skillsoft’s women employees from 31 to 40 percent. And we’ll keep going until we’re at least at 50 percent. We’ve also tapped into an important opportunity to extend the impact of this content program to our unique and powerful customer base. Skillsoft trains many, many people, including those at companies with many household-name brands and 65 percent of the Fortune 500. Through digital learning, we’re aiming to spur a sea change in advancing gender equality and women’s leadership across and throughout organizations where the program is implemented. To date, more than 800 women are participating across the U.S., APAC and EMEA.
People make mistakes. Right now, we as a collective humanity are continuing to make the big mistake of not empowering women to meet their full potential. But the definition of insanity is to keep repeating your mistakes and expecting a different result. And what’s the key to moving past our mistakes? Learning from them. At the core of initiatives such as Women in Action is learning—through meaningful, substantive yet digitally accessible content for today’s mobile, on-the-go yet substantive insight-seeking learner. If we can master three lessons in particular, we can take back 2017 as a milestone year for women in leadership:
- Mentoring: Women need to master helping, supporting, and uplifting each other. And the key to this is female-to-female mentoring and open, confident, and fearless communication.
- He for She: Men need to be part of the solution. United Nations Women’s He for She campaign is a great example of the need for awareness and active participation by men in advancing women’s leadership, because, as Hillary Clinton has famously said, women’s right are human rights—and when we advance human rights, we advance humanity’s collective potential for achievement.
- Language: How we talk psychologically impacts how we think and can rewire our brains. We all need to stop double standards in words we use to describe men and women for the same behavior. The Ban Bossy campaign, for example, is a great example of how we need to reflect on how our words can be pejorative when they should be positive. Rather than describing females of all ages as bossy, we need to make a concerted effort to describe them as we would a man: confident, demonstrating leadership skills, taking initiative—the list goes on. Additionally, we as women need to avoid the need to be deferential and overly apologetic in our language. We need to own our confidence, as well as not shy away from asking tough or uncomfortable questions.
When it comes to women’s equality and leadership, we must commit to recognizing our mistakes for what they are and learning from them. Our biggest mistake is we’re still not setting women up for success in a way that’s equal to men—we’re still holding women back. The only way to raise our standards is to learn—and we need to do that urgently.
In her role as Chief Creative Officer for Skillsoft, Tara O’Sullivan oversees content production and ensures Skillsoft’s digital technology strategy presents its brand, voice, and vision consistently and authoritatively. O’Sullivan has more than 23 years’ experience in B2B technology marketing, including leadership positions in Oracle, IONA Technologies, SAS, and TES Global. She has an MA in International Marketing from University College Dublin.