A few weeks ago, I spent most of my day in a meeting filled with church people. This particular committee is the first – and currently only – ‘church’ committee that I’ve been involved with for a number of years. Very little of my work is with church people; while I very much like people from the church individually, en masse it’s a bit of culture shock.
A slight diversion: I discovered recently that a distant, much respected colleague described me to the people in the cafe downstairs as being 'fierce'. The people in the cafe have a particular nickname they call me, which is quite funny and lovely. When they told my colleague about the nickname, he said to them ‘I’d never dare call Cheryl that…’. It took me a few days to discover why they were suddenly treating me differently. There was a slight nervousness or apprehension that hadn’t been there before. I was back to being called ‘Cheryl’. Until my colleague made those comments, they hadn’t known that there might be a reason to be scared of me; that they might need to be careful how they talked with me.
So today, I was in this meeting, and someone was telling an anecdote about a group of women who have been doing a particular task. ‘They’re extraordinarily competent’, this person said; to which another male interrupted, right on cue: ‘They just sound scary!’. He was joking – you can imagine the tone of voice – and the required number of people around the room laughed.
It was inevitable someone would make that particular comment. Someone always does. And if that group of women had heard him saying that within that context, there is a good chance that many of them would have come right back at him. But for some of them, for whom standing up and being visible might be against every instinct, I can guarantee they would begin to worry and wonder about how they were perceived; whether they were too outspoken, or too demanding, or too mean, or whatever. I can guarantee that, because I hear their stories – and I know it myself. We do not know the courage it takes for many women simply to make themselves seen and heard within a community, and how much it takes to fight the instinct, when hearing comments like this, to go back to a corner and sit in its shadows.
I’ve had to fight that instinct over the last few weeks. It’s scary enough doing my job, let alone doing it in public. I’d give anything to do what I do without having to do it ‘out loud’.
I know comments like this aren’t made only about women, but those comments are made much more often about women, and they do terrible damage. And I know many of you will think comments like this should just be brushed off – but actually, they really shouldn’t.
I’ve been in my new position for 2 and a half months now. The most surprising thing has been the extraordinary number of conversations I’ve had with women I work with, who now feel able – because I’m in the position I’m now in – to tell me their stories of inclusion or exclusion. And so many of the stories are made of small comments that people have made: the throw-away, easy line that makes us question our participation – and that makes other people wary or apprehensive around us. And while we’re an organisation that values women highly, and is absolutely, definitely committed to equality in the workplace, we’re also an organisation that has become very lazy with its language, and unable to remember that if we aren’t deliberately including and welcoming women in all our conversations and actions, we’re actually deliberately excluding them.
I am required to do what I do in my job – to stand up for people, to speak loudly and persistently on behalf of the voices that don’t know they can be heard. That’s a major portion of my position description. I’m going to have to learn to be comfortable with being called ‘fierce’ when I’m actually just doing my job, because I’m going to have to be ‘fierce’ to do my job well. And I’m so grateful for the people who work with me closely, and those who love me, who don’t call me fierce, but instead would much rather just say, ‘Thank you. You do your job well’.
As a child, Melbourne-based writer and curator Cheryl Lawrie dreamt of being a ballet-dancing architect; instead she works in the Uniting Church in Australia as the Associate Executive Director of the Commission for Mission. Her website is http://holdthisspace.org.au where this article first appeared as a blog post