Perched on the cliffs above Fermain bay I was watching a tiny fishing boat pitching up and down in the foaming waters between Guernsey and Sark, little more than a dot in the expanse of ocean, when it struck me all over again – how the heck did Debra Searle have the guts to row solo across the Atlantic? Witnessing the scene before me, then scaling up to Debra’s endeavour, just about blew my mind!
Debra Searle MVO MBE was the guest speaker, thanks to sponsors RBC, at the Women’s Development Forum in both Guernsey and Jersey in March 2015. Entrancing hundreds of women with her 3 month story of “choosing her attitude” to combat loneliness, get through daily challenges and then anticipate the elation of her arrival. Debra told us how she continued the journey solo when her then husband, bailed out after 2 weeks. The story went global, not because this was a fantastic feat of human endeavour, which it was, but because she was a woman. As Debra said “it wouldn’t have even made the local paper if it had been she who had bailed and not her husband” – illustrating perfectly the stereotypical attitudes to gender we all unconsciously hold. Indeed, would we have been held as spell bound by her story if she had been a man?
Unconscious bias is one of the buzz phrases in the gender diversity world at the moment. We could easily have listened and been deeply impacted by Debra’s story without actually realising the unconscious judgements we were making about gender. But why shouldn’t we believe a woman to be both mentally and physically strong enough to complete the challenge? Well because hundreds of years of cultural gender imprinting have left us with the idea that women are the weaker sex, get over emotional when things get tough and would crumble at the sight of the first big wave. (Actually to be honest I probably would, but that’s not the point!)
For those of us passionate about redressing the imbalance in gender at senior management level, we need to make every effort to raise into consciousness the biases we have been buying into. Simply put, where business skills and competencies are concerned – men and women are equal – in intelligence, emotional resilience, problem solving, visioning and strategizing. Where we are not equal is in numbers, neither those who have made it into the boardroom nor sadly it appears those who aspire to board roles.
After hearing Debra speak I looked at my own situation, looking at where I am playing small, examining how I am holding myself back, and how I can do more to encourage others to step up too. So I for one am following Debra’s advice to “choose my attitude” – after all if Debra can row solo across the Atlantic Ocean then surely I can find the inner resources to step to the challenges in my own life!
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