In the 1948 London Olympics Dutch athlete, Francina “Fanny” Blankers-Koen, a 30 year-old mother of two, won four gold medals and was the most successful athlete at those Games. She retired from athletics in 1955 after a stellular career that included multiple Dutch, European and World records. In 1999 she was voted ‘Female Athlete of the Century’ by the International Association of Athletic Federations.

From her Games exploits Fanny acquired the nickname, ‘The Flying Housewife’.

‘The Flying Housewife’…oh how times have changed! Or have they?

The flying housewifeAt one level ‘sexism’ is simply wrong. Easy. However, it is often not as ‘simple’ as that given the extent to which it is ingrained in society (and seen as ‘normal’) and also confused by cultural norms and interpretations. In a Western context, one in which the ‘rule of law’ generally holds that men and women, and the roles they play, are equal, is different from many Eastern contexts where one cannot assume this ‘rule of law’.

The problem in the Western context is that whilst there is widespread acknowledgment of this ‘rule of law’ – something we might label ‘PC’ (political correctness), in practice it is not so. On a daily basis our language reveals this reality and if language is the signpost to organisational culture, then we only have to stop and listen – really listen, to see the problem at hand. There are many times when ‘both sides’ are guilty of using language that reinforces stereotypes and gender discrimination but let’s not pretend that this ‘guilt’ is shared in equal measure. It is not.

It is also important to acknowledge that there are times when the language used is not intended to insult or convey sexism. That does not exonerate or excuse it, but rather merely provides opportunity for education and awareness, the ‘delivery’ of which is not without risk. The language is often patronising and comes wrapped in sugar-coated terms of endearment such as, “Girlie” or “My Girl”, “Sweetie”, “Honey” and any number of other such words used in professional settings that are not appropriate.

Much of the problem stems from an ignorance as to how such language (aside from the accompanying behaviour) is hurtful and discriminatory. Many male dominated business environments simply ‘don’t see’ how their words and actions exclude, isolate and discriminate. And when this is pointed out they are often truly amazed and all too often quick to defend, rationalise or even get hostile in the face of such evidence. Women in these environments often adopt the pervasive language and behaviour in order to fit in and survive the ‘boys club’. The ‘truth’ of the situation is often masked in the boardroom but is fully exposed in the informal interactions and the ‘pub time’ that usually reveal the true culture and character of the organisation.

There are many steps that can be taken to address this issue and raise the awareness within your team or organisation. Here would be some pointers that in no way are the definitive actions needed but do represent a solid start:

  • Ask. Find a safe way to illicit authentic feedback / conversation from the women within your team / organisation as to the real state of play. This might need external facilitation or anonymity depending on the prevailing conditions.  Don’t assume you can simply ask once and get an honest answer. If your environment is toxic then it is likely that what you hear (at first asking) is not what you need to hear.
  • Listen to the language used. Start to compile a list of words (and phrases) that you might suspect are not acceptable. This might be a list not of your own making but something that is developed in the ‘asking’ process. Start to note when such words are used in conversation and pay attention to the responses. Just listen for a time.  Allow your own awareness to develop a sharpened sensitivity to what is happening and as you do so, test this with those you feel will provide deeper insights and encourage you to hear that which still remains ‘hidden’.
  • Read. There are several helpful articles and books detailing this issue in particular those highlighting the unique challenges women in leadership encounter. Let others see you reading this literature. See if it evokes any response but the primary purpose here is the reading not the posing!
  • Find a mentor. Find someone that can further educate you in the stuff that you previously simply ‘didn’t see’ or understand. It is only by pursuing honest conversations and being willing to have someone point out your own ‘blind spots’ that authentic progress can be made. This might be difficult (at first) but will be invaluable (in the end).
  • Change yourself. Make a conscious effort to change your own language and behaviour before addressing it more formally. Trust me, your efforts will not go unnoticed! This might mean not laughing at a comment or joke; deliberately steering the conversation away from a certain topic or rethinking the activity or pursuit to ensure it is more inclusive.

Focus on these five areas and you will soon be immersed in a ‘different world’. I have a very smart daughter (who just so happens to be a psychologist) to thank for my own development in this journey… one that I’m quick to acknowledge is a long way from ‘complete’! Through hearing and seeing some of her own challenges and struggles to her willingness to challenge my own language and actions thereby exposing my own biases, slow gains have been made. Early in my career, I remember being part of a leadership team with only one female member and although a respectful and well-intentioned team, we were guilty of several failings that meant she often felt excluded. It was her courage to speak-up and a willingness to hear that sparked my start along this road all those years ago. For that I will be eternally grateful.

As men we (often) just don’t get it. But ‘wise up’ we must and there is no better time to start than now and no better place to start, than with yourself in your immediate context. Don’t look ‘out there’ but start your inquiry ‘in here’…wherever ‘in here’ is for you.

Fanny” Blankers-Koen’s Olympic achievements were credited with breaking barriers that motherhood posed to athletes. As we listen to some of the Rio Olympic commentary it would seem a lesson we have been slow to really learn although, to deny progress since the time of the “Flying Housewife,” would also not be true!

Time perhaps to test and address this issue in your own environment? 

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