Women in Focus is a website and initiative by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is a place for women to be inspired, informed and connected with other women in business in Australia and around the world. Angela Vithoulkas, CEO of VIVO Cafe Group, radio broadcaster of Eagle Waves Radio, public speaker and Councillor of the City of Sydney, will be the Guru on the Business Beat section and will be providing weekly articles on all things small business.
For International Women’s Day this year I chose to not attend the usual events, instead I said no to all except a Symposium held by the Hellenic Lyceum to discuss the Achievements of Women – early migrants, contemporary women and what the future looked like for us. I made a very poor assumption that it would be full of stereotyped stories and speakers.
Not only was I quite wrong – I was after all a panel member myself, but I was stirred beyond my wildest expectations. I was mesmerised, enlightened, inspired and educated about my own gender and my own cultural heritage.
There was no sign of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, instead I was presented with an abundance of proud women who endured, conquered and built a life geared solely to make it better for the next generation- mine. And I witnessed the young women to come. I was humbled by their confidence and grateful that my generation is raising women that will significantly blend culture, history and values in their own powerful way.
I was torn this week when it came to consider my “view” of IWD and how I was going to present you with my usual business perspective. My struggle was around how to blend my business observations with the emotional confrontation the symposium gifted me. I am a business owner, a broadcaster and a politician. My views are strong, sometimes conflicting and as it may turn out, politically incorrect 🙂
Q’s But No A’s
This internationally recognised celebration day established more questions than it answered for me, and frankly I’m ashamed that it hasn’t done so before. The questions started along the lines of what place does business have in this? Is it as superficial as a sponsor of events, of paying lip service to gender diversity and ticking a few boxes of brand opportunity? And what about small business, are they involved because of peer group pressure? Attend an event or two, put a post on Facebook and wear a purple ribbon…
Then it moved to who are these women? What have “they” done, what are we really doing to effect change and how differently this movement began across many cultures.
As a woman business owner I asked myself if I really was contributing to the spirit of IWD and the honest reality of why we need to bring so much attention to the plight of women all over the world and those much closer to home. Am I doing enough and do I really understand the meaning of disadvantaged? In business, disadvantaged means a lower limit on your credit card, being overlooked for a promotion or contract or left off the most influential list. In my defense, it’s not that I don’t know that there is real pain and suffering of women around the world, it’s just that I have never felt personally empowered that I was able to help. Technically the role of business is to pursue profit, but it can and does participate in leadership roles for gender and cultural diversity, but I believe so much more can be done.
I discovered, at this symposium, the most precious and powerful weapon that we have – our voice.
Women across the globe share the fight and the drive for change from circumstances unique to their country and cultures. We recognise our sisters who need a voice from those who are able and free to speak. There are not enough of us doing that.
Amongst the many aha! moments I had, and the privilege to hear the older generations speak, I want to emphasise what I did not hear – negatives. I heard stories of courage and family honour, of women who arrived on our shores to marry men they had never met and tell us they had no regrets. I heard stories of women who defied their families and asserted their independence in spite of being ostracised and that they had no regrets either.
When the discussions were driven by historical roles of women, the question arose on whether women were recognised as playing pivotal roles in cultural integration, on how we have always been the natural keepers of preserving heritage and rebellious warriors when needed. Our identities have constantly been a priority; we just didn’t always have a name for it or a place to blog about it.
Life for many women is made up of single second moments that shift the world, normal everyday women like you and me, like the goat herder’s daughter who came here and became a professor and helped spread the warmth of education to enlighten and empower. She said education was key to facilitate, document and record the actual experiences that will in and of themselves change outcomes.
I believe power and knowledge is delivered through reading and writing, yet so many women remain illiterate – my mother is one of these women. Ironically, it seems the earliest recordings of the political and social rights of women are from the male viewpoint since they were assured of the privilege and right of literacy.
The discussion then turned to the current generation and our perspective – suddenly I felt pressured to be eloquent and wise and just sound really smart. I have never been tongue tied – many of you would know this, until that very moment. I didn’t feel that I had anything close to offer what our pioneers had shared, how could I? I hadn’t even tried to get an education that was available to me and denied to them, I had all the rights and options they never did…What could I share that had substance? These very thoughts that went through my head smacked of weakness, not of the strong woman my mother raised me to be.
It’s OK people; it was just a fleeting moment. It’s the sum of a whole life that also brings change and mine has been and is as uniquely powerful as every woman’s is. I have made choices that men will never have to make and that previous generations never faced. In turn, this will help the next generation of women who will hopefully be able to embrace their identities as individuals rather than being defined first by gender, professional accomplishments and several other societal measures. We are too complex to be catagorised so simply.
I shared my life and my feelings with them as I often do here with you. I felt safe and happy to expose my early life struggles as a migrant’s daughter knowing they could accept my view without judging or labeling me. I was another woman sharing my journey so far with my hopes and dreams for tomorrow. It’s the documenting of authentic experiences in story telling I believe enables change in its own way. I have never chained myself to a pole to demonstrate or protest gender inequality, but I did once jump into a pit to stop a builder tearing up a footpath outside my shop. I like to think that he went home that day knowing that there were woman like me around who were determined to fight for what they believe. It’s not about the size of the project, it’s not about disliking men or blaming them, it’s about using our voice to share our stories and walking with each other down a path toward mutual respect. Or we could just nag them until they give in, it worked for my mum.