I recently had the privilege to attend a unique "unconference" entitled the Overlap. The Overlap brings together people from design and business to geek out. It is typically rather unstructured and led by the participants themselves. No hierarchy. Everyone is valued equally, led by a different set of volunteers each year, in different locations, with different themes. What I love most about the Overlap is that everyone shows up as "whole people." We don't know the agenda. We just assume it will be awesome and that if it isn't, it's our own fault as a participant. We don't exchange business cards. We talk about frustrations, concerns, what inspires us, what motivates us, and we share deep aspects of our personal lives, recognizing that this inherently impacts our professional lives. Amidst a group of strangers, we get to be our true selves and are loved for this. It's a rare time to find that kind of acceptance, to find one's tribe. This year, the theme was entitled, "Back to the Basics" and took place in the mountains of Colorado. Amongst other things, I walked up a mountain, peed in a double decker out-house, and learned how to build an emergency shelter.
After an impromptu suggestion, a group of women and I decided to have a "Women's Circle" to discuss the challenges that felt specific to our gender. It was a soulful gathering with each of us sharing bits of our journey, main questions we had in front of us, while offering lessons from our own lives in case they were helpful to others. In true design-thinking fashion (of course) we took notes and synthesized our findings. We felt that the main outcomes were rather gender neutral and we decided to share with the larger group and I am sharing them now here:
Don't Wait to be Heard: Your Time is Now. Don't Wait for Acknowledgement.
There is no perfect moment. There is no affirmation firm enough to dare us to be ourselves. You don't need to wait for someone to ask you a question or to share your opinion. You have the right to respectfully express yourself when you want to. We discussed Sheryl Sandberg's example of telling an audience that she had time for one more question. After that one question was asked and answered, men kept raising their hands, and Sheryl continued to answer them. But the women kept their hands down. We don't need permission.
Lead with a Point of View: Don't Worry about not Knowing Everything.
It is easy to feel like you must know all the answers in order to assert your point of view. But in reality, no one really has it figured out. We are all simply doing our best. In the group, we did discuss that men are generally more confident in their ideas and therefore people are more likely to believe them, even if they are wrong. As women, we shouldn't be scared to form an opinion and share it. When we say it with confidence, we might just be surprised by who will follow our lead.
Know who you Are: Embrace Multiple Stories… and Wardrobes.
We are multifaceted beings. There are different parts of ourselves that need to be expressed at different times and it is important that we find ways to support these varied aspects of ourselves. Sometimes we are the high powered executive, sometimes we are the sexy gal at the bar, sometimes we are the tomboy. Pin point the "yous" that make you the most alive and find ways to support each of them. And it's okay to bring a change of clothes when it is time to switch it up.
Men are not a Homogeneous Group: Let's not Repeat "Their" Mistakes.
This is a slightly tongue in cheek one in that we state men are not all alike, yet we refer to them as such. What we meant here is that we want to move forward and understand the complex nature of men. Not assume that they are all the enemy or that they don't understand or respect women. Many men are partners in the fight for gender equality and we recognize that men have a large amount of gender stereotypes that they must contend with as well. When we shared this list with the group, we had one father in the room brought to tears thanking us for being who we are so that his daughters can follow suite.
Claim your Space. Own Your Schtick: You are Enough. You are not Too Much.
It can be hard to own our own strength. We might not want to overwhelm others or come off as too demanding. We aim to keep the peace and not be too challenging, but at the same time, we know what we are talking about so it can be hard to know the best way to speak up. This young poet Lily Myers depicts the situation well here in a more personal context. Many of us in the circle shared stories about a time we offered a suggestion, that was not listened to until a man in the room offered up the same suggestion as his own idea. We need to own our schtick and not be afraid to be heard.
Partnerships Not Hierarchies: Be Active in Your Network. Learn & Contribute.
It is important that we build a network for ourselves of those more and less experienced than ourselves so that we can continuously learn from each other and pass these lessons down to new generations. One explicit concept we discussed was the idea of "flash teams" for independent consultants. That instead of competing for business, people can work together when needed and gain more business as a collective than as an individual. The lesson here is to always find ways to add value to your network and embrace the give and take. We'll all be better off for it.
*as a small disclaimer, because the word "gender" is being used, I'd like to state this piece intentionally focuses on men and women, but I want to recognize that other genders might deal with similar or unique circumstances. These topics are beyond the scope of my ability to write about.