Being a strong woman in a mans world
I am so grateful to my mom. The best way to start a blog, is with that sentence. With my mother, Dee Harris, no longer with us in this world, let me paint a picture for those of you who didn't have the privilege of knowing her. My mom stood 6 feet tall and was the wisest woman I have ever met. She wrote 6 books based off of Proverbs in the bible, titled "wisdom for daily living". She imparted so much wisdom into my life, which I will be forever grateful for. My mom was confident, often called intimidating, she spoke her mind and did it with such grace and kindness. She instilled so much confidence in me to be exactly who I was and to never let anyone ever dim my light. She told me from a very young age that my personality and confidence would not sit well with everyone and that there would be people that wouldn't like me because of it, but that my closest friends would be more loyal than brothers. She motivated and inspired me to seek truth, to always fight for what is right and that nothing in life is more important than my values. I watched her on multiple occasions being shut down or pushed aside because she was a woman. A man in a sermon once said; "women do not belong behind a pulpit but next to a mans side", my mom stood up and marched us all out of that hall. She was strong, independent, loyal and courageous. She encouraged me to be bigger, aim higher, speak out and fight for what is right. So let me repeat my opening line: I am so grateful to my mom.
As a strong, confident and very self assured woman, I saw very early on in life how much I intimidated insecure coaches, teachers and leaders. There is a huge difference between arrogance and confidence. Over inflated ego's don't serve you, confidence does. If you are confident in yourself and who you are, you do not feel the need to be threatened by someone else who is shining their light. As a female athlete, during my entire career, I had one female coach. ONE! My sport was, and still is dominated by males, not only in the coaching world, but in the leadership and federations both domestically and internationally. I very quickly realized that there was a "boys club" that was tight, very well protected and not about to change anytime soon. Challenging the "boys club" has always been something I have not been afraid to do, even if it meant costing me my place in teams or in big coaching positions. It is easy to say you will stand up to the system or for injustice but when it actually comes down to doing something, most people will hide. "It is someone else's battle to fight". "Nothing I ever do will make a difference anyway". "Let me just stay in my comfortable bubble and pretend none of this is happening". It takes so much courage and bravery to stand up to the system. I lived this a few years back when I challenged Swimming South Africa after dismissing me from the National Team coaching role because of how I challenged them, stood up to them and asked the hard questions. I saw the injustices, corruption and "boys club" at work and I refused to be a puppet in their system.
I have spoken quite openly about my struggles and challenges within that organization as a player and a coach, but I haven't really spoken much about the protection within the federation towards the men and coaches. There are still coaches in the system that have had inappropriate relations with minors, where parents and individuals have spoken out and the "boys club" have swept it under the rug. There is still a coach in the system that sexually manipulated me at 16 years old, was a school coach displaying inappropriate behavior with school girls many years later, and is still in the system. It took me until just a few years ago to re-live those moments and actually see them for what they were. I never spoke out about it at the time because it was actually very normal for 25 year old coaches and men's players to be preying on the school girls. Not until I spoke through the situation in detail more recently, did reality sink in that I was a minor, should never have been in that position, have a man do what he did to me, or have to forcefully say no to a grown male in a powerful position. Thinking back on those times, it could have been so much worse for me if I did not have the mom I had, as well as her intuition. Being strong willed, I was able to forcefully say no and when the man continued pursuing me, I ended up opening up to my mom about what was happening and she intervened. When this man could not get what he really wanted from me, he moved on to his next victim. While I was semi-fortunate enough in this situation with this man, other young girls were not so fortunate. Instances like this, issues like this, are not ones I will ever stop speaking about or challenging, no matter how many enemies I make.
I decided to move away from the sports world and into the corporate world. A world I have loved being in, learning and growing so much while thoroughly enjoying the fast paced environment. A world where I see myself fitting in and making a difference, while continually learning and growing. While I found my passion and voice in the corporate world, I also saw that it doesn't matter if you are in the sporting world or corporate world, being a strong female can be very intimidating to men in leadership, regardless of what sector you are in.
I have experienced two types of men in the corporate world. The first is a leader I have always dreamed of having. A strong, genius of a businessman, who is kind, empathetic, extremely successful but understands that his success comes from empowering other people around him. The leader who is firm but supportive and encourages strong women to be even stronger because he sees her worth and value. I am so blessed I got to experience this type of male leadership and learn from it. I watched how he dealt with conflict, meetings, the work place and tough times. I tried to be a sponge and learn as much as I could. I was challenged, empowered and my thoughts and ideas always heard, even if they resulted in nothing. A leader who was confident in who he was and where his strengths lay, while empowering others to use their unique strengths in a united way, towards a strategy to achieve greatness, TOGETHER. It is so refreshing to see a male leader empowered and inspired by strong woman - who willed them on to be even bigger versions of themselves and reach an even higher potential. The bar has been set super high for what a leader should look like, male or female, and it has allowed me to have a standard that I would not want to steer from in future roles, jobs and leadership. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to experience this type of leadership.
I have also encountered the other side of male leadership. The one who was immediately threatened by me, my rise in a company, my loud voice and "like-ability" I started gaining within my role. Very quickly the subtle bullying began. It was so subtle to start, that I started questioning if I was the problem, which is always a good thing to do - where is the common denominator? Am I the problem? Are there things I could work on? I did work on lots of things but the bullying and passive aggressiveness did not stop. To be honest, it probably would have stopped if I had succumbed to it, been passive or wanted to fade away into the background. Being who I am, I spoke out but nothing came from it. For the first time in my life, I started struggling with panic attacks, severe anxiety and needed to seek professional help. The passive aggressive behavior towards me was not going away, so I somehow had to learn to deal with it, while still staying true to myself, yet not allowing it to destroy me. My anxiety was so bad that I would wake up in a panic in the middle of the night to check my messages and emails and could not go back to sleep. It became debilitating and I realized that this could only have power over me if I continued to allow it. I needed to use professional help and tools to protect myself and take back the power. So often during these times, I have had my moms voice in my head, reminding me to stay strong, to apologize when necessary, continue to learn and grow but not be intimidated. Navigating that period was extremely difficult. I made lots of mistakes, sought out tools to help me cope and for the first time, truly understood and experienced panic attacks and anxiety. While this was such a challenging period, I also learnt so much about myself, the power of a therapist as well as the power of oneself. While it seems strange to say, I am also so grateful I had the opportunity to experience this type of leadership and what it taught and showed me.
I don't hate men and my mission is not to take them down BUT we are fools if we think that women are not treated differently in the work place just because of their gender. Gender inequality in the work place is evident. As a strong number 8 on the enneagram, I am bound to be a person that addresses this, speaks about it as well as my experiences. I want to challenge leaders and people to do better, to be better, all while trying to do and be better myself.
Here are some of my top take-aways from being a women in a mans world.
YOUR VOICE IS POWERFUL AND STRONG, DO NOT BE AFRAID TO USE IT
You do not need to be silenced or a smaller version of yourself to be successful. If there are wrongdoings happening, you may have to speak out MANY times and it still may result in ZERO change. Stay true to your values and morals, even though it may feel like a lonely journey a lot of the time.
WHEN YOU FIND A POWERFUL AND INSPIRING LEADER, BECOME A SPONGE
Learn as much as you can from powerful and inspiring leaders. Ask them questions, try and be mentored by them and do not be afraid to give your thoughts and opinions. View how they strategize, deal with conflict and handle difficult situations. Ask for feedback and be open to constructive criticism, knowing that you cannot grow without making mistakes and learning from them. Take what you learn from these leaders and start adding parts of it to your everyday life as well as your leadership style.
WHEN YOU ARE WRONG, OWN IT
There is so much power in saying sorry. When you are wrong, own it! You can only control YOUR actions and apologizing is something you have power over. You cannot force someone to accept the apology, but once you apologize and truly mean it, move on. You are bound to make mistakes, they are pivotal for growth but make mistakes with grace, learn from them and move forward. Vulnerability has so much power and is not a weakness. Do not shy away from being vulnerable but be wise with who you trust and share your heart with.
DO NOT VIEW SEEKING HELP AS WEAKNESS
Anxiety, depression, bullying and tough times are very real issues in the workplace and sometimes you can feel so lonely in your journey. Seeking help is not weakness - it takes so much strength to understand when you need some help and guidance to take back your power and remain in a positive mental state.
BE THE BIGGEST, BOLDEST AND STRONGEST VERSION OF YOURSELF, KNOWING YOU ARE NOT PERFECT AND WILL MAKE MISTAKES BUT CAN OWN IT, LEARN AND MOVE FORWARD, ALL THE WHILE HAVING A LEARNING HEART.
Let me end this blog how I started it: I am so grateful to my mom. I am so grateful that her upbringing of me still encourages me to write blogs like this, to talk about the hard topics, to speak out when things aren't right and to be honest even when you stand alone. I am grateful to be a strong woman and grateful that others have sacrificed so that I can be where I am today. I am grateful for all the individuals that have and continue to sow positively into my life and hope that through my truth, I am positively sowing into others.
Until next time!