I recently was invited to attend the University Scholars Leadership Symposium 2017 at the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. I knew from the start that it was guaranteed to be an interesting experience. What I was unsure of however was how sustainable it would be, and how influential a motivational conference might be when I’m at a point in my life where I’m past the motivation stage and instead looking for real tangible plans for change.
I found this in our breakout session on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5: Gender Equality. From the start, the energy in the room was different than anything else I had felt at the conference. Where previously most of us were simply delegates watching and absorbing what was shared with us, here we were invited to actually discuss, to be present and be partners in the conversation. That empowering sense of engagement only magnified with the first words of the breakout session.
“What is gender. What is being masculine. What is being feminine”. From the start, the discussion acknowledged that in no way shape or form could we pretend that this was going to be a discussion only about women. While we were the majority in the room, it was clear that we had to remember that the battle for equity involves everyone.
What followed was a vivid discussion and an electric energy in the room, of people who are frustrated with the status quo and ready to shake things up. I remember looking around and smiling because this was the right place for me: where all my thoughts and ideas about women, femininity, gender equity – and specifically women in science and medicine – could be elaborated on and shared.
Coming back to the original questions, the one that stuck out to me was what is being feminine. It is a word many would argue against using, but one that I embrace because my definition is so much more vast than what I’m sure is defined by oxford. What is being feminine?
My response is this.
Women are expected to be everything. We’re expected to maintain our appearance but not in vain. We’re expected to want a “natural makeup” look that is sold to us via a painstaking bevy of products. We’re expected to be smart but not nerdy, and sexual but not promiscuous. A facade of perfection that shouldn’t dare to show a crack of divergence from our prescribed goal of “femininity”.
Speaking of prescription, no where do I feel this challenge more than in my world where I practise medicine. “You’re too pretty to be a doctor,” they say. “Sweetie, I want to see the real doctor”.
At the conference and in the breakout discussion, I was shocked by the lack of shock: not a single girl would doubt that these are real experiences. And yet here we were, a room full of hundreds of men and women who believe that indeed by reaching for the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality, we are enabling 50% of the population, a percentage that should be part of the discussion and part of the way we change the world. As we said at the time, by focusing on this SDG, we allow for the success of all the other 16 SDG’s.
So here is my challenge to the women I met at the conference, the ones who showed up to a breakout session full of energy but unsure where to channel it. It is my challenge to the women out there in science and medicine who look down in their mirror and wonder if their choice of appearance will change the respect they get that day. It is my challenge to men, women, and every person who believes in attaining the UN SDG’s.
Where women are expected to be everything, I challenge you to be anything.
You are capable of infinite possibilities. Your potential for being feminine is based solely on being a woman who exists. So when your presence is questioned, or you wonder how you are going to make the change, be anything. Where men are assertive and women are bossy, I challenge you to be a boss.
We need to show up. We need to be the faces that are there everyday. Be the role model you want to see in your field. We are the women of the world and only we get to define what it is to be us. By showing up, by being the person you want to be and are capable of being, you are showing that you are here, existing in your most perfect and genuine form.
Be feminine. Be the person you want to admire. Be anything.