Provide one or two examples of your ability to overcome adversity.
I recently came across this request in an application for a fellowship.
It seems ludicrous.
Just one? I can name a hundred off the top of my head. How do I choose the one that would be representative? The one that fits neatly into the 1000-character field required by the application?
My answer begins:
As a mid-career woman of color, I unfortunately manage adversity on a regular basis.
Because it’s true. Maybe it sounds exasperated. Maybe it actually is. Either way, I don’t get the fellowship.
Instead, I get shared laughs and deeply knowing sighs—the kind that start somewhere near your diaphragm and end in a low growl—from friends who are women, women of color (whose sighs come from even deeper in the gut). We are advocates, writers, artists and entrepreneurs. We’ve led change in our communities, sought funding and support, and raised our hands and voices—only to be met with barriers, challenges and rejections, over and over again.
There was the time at a festival, where my funder was present, when a man presented my original framework for human rights storytelling without attribution. (The funder asked me later, “Why don’t you apply that framework to your work?”)
Or the time my friend, a writer and foreign policy expert, was asked to be on a panel with two men and found out later they were paid for their time and she wasn’t. When she asked the organizer to provide her an honorarium for her time, he dismissed her.
What about the time a male friend called me two weeks before a panel, asking me to please come join because he couldn’t bear to have female students in his audience face another all-male panel? (The students, mostly women of color, lined up in front of me afterwards to say, “Thank you, it’s so good to see a woman speak here.”)
Or the time my colleague, a leading expert in her field in digital technology, found out a man had digested her detailed presentations, for which she volunteered her time, and charged conference organizers to present her work as his own.
How about the time I was rejected for a different fellowship in favor of a lesser-qualified, younger white man? In the words of the person who had originally nominated me, my competitor reminded the all-male judging panel of themselves. When revisiting the experience afterward with one of my male colleagues, I pointed out I am a graduate of a top-five law school, a former non-profit executive director, the founder of a social enterprise and have credits on projects that won Oscars.
His response: “Well, you haven’t proven yourself enough yet.”
How much more do we have to prove ourselves?
We are educated, prepared and, most importantly, we confront adversity through lived experience. When I think of how qualified we are, I think of Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire did, only dancing backwards, sparkling and gorgeous, and in heels. Only now we’re doing it wearing masks and six feet away from our dance partners.
Our leadership can help us navigate our way out of our current geopolitical challenges to a better future. I promise you this.
But when I think of how little support we get to build our projects, our innovations, our structures and our communities, it scares me. I’ve experienced firsthand how the gender gap holds us back from progress. My core work is in human rights and narrative strategies, and I’m planning to launch a new entity to support and highlight community-based human rights leaders around the world—many of whom are women, women of color, and LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people.
They are strategic, innovative and effective, leading change through lived experience, but are too often overlooked for funding, speaking and professional advancement opportunities—which hinders their ability to catalyze social change.
I’ve also experienced how efforts toward closing the gender gap can work. I took a temporary detour away from my core work to serve as the 2019-2020 entepreneur-in-residence for the GenderAvenger Futures Project, with a mandate to reimagine the future of gender representation.
Based on five years of growth and success, the organization has had the vision to set up a futures project to address how women can achieve greater visibility and access—an essential step toward collective efforts to shift the balance of power toward gender equity.
This work is rewarding, but it’s an uphill battle. And now, in the midst of COVID-19, we’re backsliding. The pandemic is highlighting and exacerbating already existing inequalities—including gender representation. Reports have emerged that women isolating at home with male partners are responsible for doing even more of the domestic work and childcare, and get less time to dedicate to careers. Submissions to academic journals from female-identifying researchers have fallen. Virtual conferences have seen a resurgence of all-male panels—and even when women do get speaking time on screen, they get less.
The silencing of our voices and perspectives in the public sphere is an obstacle to our leadership. We are too often unheard. When we advocate to be heard, we have to prove ourselves—or prove we’re being discriminated against, even if it’s patently obvious. When we advocate for ourselves, we risk not being invited back. Yet we continue.
We need the energy of this persistence. At a time when multiple intersecting issues are staring us in the face—oppression, authoritarianism, climate change, gender-based violence, forced displacement and pandemics—we need our voices. We know how to advocate, organize and strengthen community.
And we don’t stop there: We use these skills to build structures that embed creativity, sustainability, justice and equity.
The gender gap in the public sphere is a visible indicator of inequality. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 tells us that if we proceed at our current pace in business, politics, civil society and the public sphere, it will take close to a century to close the gender gap around the world. We don’t have that kind of time.
We can navigate our way to a better future if we broaden beyond listening to one small, privileged segment of the population. It’s time to commit new resources toward closing the gender gap. Organizations that are lean, community-facing and doing the long-term work of progressive change—especially those run by women—need support.
When I speak to my friends and colleagues, and particularly to younger feminists, a few patterns emerge about what commitments we need from policymakers, decision-makers and funders:
- First, we need our projects and products invested in—not only through capacity building, in-kind support or awards that may bring profile, but also through concrete big financial bets. With financial support, we can scale and deepen our impact.
- Second, we need access. To public platforms—not as tokens or diversity checkmarks—but as collaborators and decision-makers; and to mentorship and the opportunity to provide our own guidance, perspective, and leadership. Organizations working on access—such as GenderAvenger, Foreign Policy Interrupted, PassBlue and She Should Run—are exposing gender imbalances, tracking progress and engaging intersectional audiences. They, and by extension their communities, would benefit from large, unrestricted funding.
- Third, we need decision-makers to address race, gender and class inclusion in their own staffing and leadership. It’s widely accepted that inclusive organizations deliver better and more measurable outcomes. This is true for every actor within the ecosystem of social change. To shift power and our dominant narratives as we confront our current crises, we need to cultivate shared lived experience throughout this entire ecosystem.
And that’s what this is about. Progress against inequality rests upon true and inclusive participation.
Give us a pathway, a stage, a straighter line, and I promise we’ll build you a better world. If there was ever a time to listen to us, it really is now.