If anyone had told me, even a few years ago that I would have co-authored a book called Women Kind – Unlocking the Power of Women Supporting Women after spending a year loudly and proudly celebrating two women a day I would have thought you were making a joke. After more than twenty years working in male dominated environments, I had spent much of it hoping no one realised I was female at all.
Finding my voice
Let me take you back to January 2017.
I happened to be on a beach holiday and was feeling fed up. If you think back to that time :
- Hillary Clinton had recently lost the election to a man who had boasted about sexual transgressions;
- Women were starting to knit pink pussy hats and take to the streets around the world;
- Only 7% of the world’s heads of state were women; and
- We had never heard of #MeToo or #TimesUp
This was all percolating around in my mind but I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, what I would call an activist. I would tentatively share news stories online about gender inequality on Twitter but I was very cautious about drawing too much attention to myself.
An Accidental Activist
Now anyone who actively uses social media knows you cannot help but notice the levels of denigration women face simply for having an opinion and being online.
On this particular day, laying in the sun on the hammock I saw a thread of tweets aimed at a radio and television broadcaster. And it was reading those tweets when I remember feeling really frustrated.
This moment came after years of trying to keep my head down and being wilfully oblivious to blatant gender inequalities. Twenty years of avoiding women’s networking events for fear of being branded one of those ‘difficult women’.
Ironically, it had been following brilliant women on social media who were raising attention on issues facing women as well as finally joining women’s networks that led me to open my eyes and be prepared to see the real, undeniable barriers confronting other women.
Slowly but surely, I had become senior enough, confident enough, and with enough influence to really open my eyes and feel I could make a difference. And I distinctly remember, on this day, saying enough is enough.
Little did I know I was about to find myself what I can only think of now as an “Accidental Activist”, which also set me on the most rewarding path of my career.
I knew when I saw those abusive tweets that if I was standing there, next to the person as those words were spoken, I would have said something.
In this case, I knew I could either choose to feel powerless and be a bystander to this person abusing a woman online. Or I could find a way to somehow turn the tables and flood my newsfeed with positive stories about women.
Every woman is a role model
I have always believed every woman is a role model to someone else and I felt just maybe, I might be able to make role models visible by sharing women’s stories and celebrating all they achieve.
I took myself off for a walk on the beach and started to think about how I could tell stories about women in a series of tweets or a post on Facebook.
I had no particular idea of what that might look like but scribbled down four questions on the back of a napkin and called who we often ring when we need help – my mother – and asked her 4 questions off the top of my head which ended up becoming the basis for the entire campaign. You might like to think about how you would answer these questions too –
- How would you describe what it is you do, without using a position title?
- What did you want to do at school?
- Use three words to describe your life to date?
- Who do you hope to inspire and why?
I shared her brief answers, with four photos, on Twitter – not telling anyone she was my mother – and I saw that people were interested. She was celebrated, I felt good, and my newsfeed was just that much more positive than it had been before for a little while.
So never one to do things by halves, the very next morning I made a very bold, public commitment that I would see if I could celebrate two women, from all walks of life and from anywhere in the world, every single day of 2017.
I had no idea where I would find these women and I had no resources – just me, my laptop and a great deal of determination to try and make a small ripple of difference.
Focus on inclusion first and foremost and from that, diversity will follow
I was astounded at how quickly the campaign spread and I am sure it was because of how inclusive it was and the fact that there were no barriers to being involved. Every single woman who contacted me and answered the same four questions and provided four photos was included.
Despite many offers of help, I insisted on doing every little part of this campaign myself – I had made the personal commitment and so I needed to follow it through. I felt a real responsibility to celebrate each woman in the way they deserved.
Every morning for an entire year I would wake up early and post the profiles of two women. I did so in the back of taxis on the way to the airport, while I was overseas, on birthdays, weekends, and Christmas. I never missed a day despite being unwell and somehow managed to do it all around what was already a busy career.
Very quickly it became apparent that the diversity of the women I was celebrating would be one of the strengths of the campaign. I ended up celebrating women as diverse as house painters, business leaders, farmers, competitive BBQ cooks, women at home with their children, military officers, and retirees. I celebrated Indigenous women, women of colour, women with disabilities, women from Kenya, Vanuatu, and Japan.
The campaign was making role models visible who may not otherwise have been seen. There was absolutely no qualifying criteria to be involved, you just needed to identify as a woman and I certainly celebrated transgender women as well.
I celebrated some high profile women, but their profiles were celebrated equally alongside a woman who wanted to be the first Australian hijab wearing ballerina, a woman driving big rigs in the Arctic Circle, a teacher in Kabul, and a pet whisperer from California.
Every woman, regardless of who they were, was only ever introduced by their first name. I was wary of accidentally ‘curating’ the campaign so I celebrated each woman in the order in which they submitted their profile and at one point during the year had a 3 month queue of women waiting for their day of celebration.
There was a lovely Serbian woman called Tina, a customs officer, who was so excited to be celebrated that every new visitor to the Serbian airport she worked at was told about the campaign. She sent me a lovely note, in her best English, that said that I had shown her through this campaign that one small rock can move a small mountain.
The #CelebratingWomen campaign which began that day with a single tweet about my mother eventually saw me celebrate 757 women from 37 countries around the world.
While #CelebratingWomen may have begun as a way to drown out the noise of denigration of women online, it very quickly morphed into a movement of women supporting women around the world.
It led to spin offs in Singapore, Japan, US, and in a wide range of organisations and industries.
And it challenged the view that only the high-achieving or well-known women should be celebrated. Every single story I shared was inspiring. Every one of the 757 women was extraordinary and very much role models to others, whether they realised it or not.
And incredibly the campaign attracted no trolls. Somehow #CelebratingWomen created a relatively safe space for women’s voices to be heard in what is all too often an unsafe environment for women.
After a year of posting two profiles a day, I had always intended for the campaign to finish on the final day of the year, and it did. I knew that it was important to now pass the baton on to someone else to see how they might like to lift other women up.
Since I had begun the campaign with the very first profile being of my mother, I thought it fitting that the final profile – no 757 – was of my eldest daughter Emily.
My year of celebrating women was easily the most rewarding year of my career.
Throwing down the fishing net
What #CelebratingWomen taught me, is that we need to forget the old saying that if we should be so successful as to achieve our own goals, we should lower the ladder down to help the next person coming up behind us. We need to forget the ladder.
A ladder is only ever designed for one person at a time and in fact you hold on for dear life to not fall so no one can get past. What #CelebratingWomen has taught me, is that we need to throw down a fishing net, so we can bring up many, many people together.
Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a business leader, company director and award-winning leadership expert. She is the co-author of the award-winning book, Women Kind: Unlocking the Power of Women Supporting Women and a contributor to Forbes on leadership and the leaders shaping our world. An Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Business and Law, Kirstin has a PhD in leadership and culture as well a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (with Honours). Kirstin has been recognised as one of Australia’s “100 Women of Influence” and was the creator of the widely acclaimed #CelebratingWomen campaign. You can learn more at www.kirstinferguson.com