Wow, a woman! Wow, a woman?
It’s less about what we say than it is how we say it. Tone and attitude, whatever the intent may be, will either deflate or motivate, especially when we consider the reaction or feedback our messages evoke.
But let me stop explaining. That will be the last effort I make to get someone to understand this. I’m thinking in particular about someone under the impression that s/he is an ally for women. Someone who isn’t quite there yet in changing the way they think, listen, or communicate, thereby perpetuating a culture that makes being a woman trying, uncomfortable, and lonely.
Luckily I felt none of those things walking into the Black Women Talk Tech (BWTT) conference this Friday in New York.
We’re getting ready to celebrate Women’s History Month, and you’re going to see a lot of posts about the first female this, the first woman that. There was a lot of that to kick off Women’s History Month at the BWTT event, which honored Julia Collins and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, among other trailblazing women. This is all good, but I wonder sometimes if we’re communicating that women can only be seen or acknowledged for making history. Better yet, for making history according to what we’re told is historical. Like breaking glass ceilings, or starting a business you’d otherwise think a man would own. (Wow, a woman? That’s new.)
We achieve a lot of feats on the daily that may not seem so historic to you, but I’d argue are way more important. There are women patiently holding the world’s future in wombs for nine months, then graciously letting them out into the world healthy and strong. There are women who, despite not being able to eat themselves, do whatever it takes (mopping, typing, cooking) to feed and clothe children so they live long enough to invent the iPod, or cure polio (“historic things”). What is more historic than keeping the human race going? And sometimes we just decide to be our best despite working hard for little to no appreciation, even if we never become historic. What I’m trying to say is that as a woman, it would be nice to be celebrated just for being that — A WOMAN in this “wow, a woman? Ok” world.
I felt really comfortable walking into the Union West Events space where the BWTT conference was held. Honestly, that’s not always the case. I’ve signed up for women empowerment groups and girls’ trips only to find more tension and competition amongst us than I’d feel around men. Sometimes the pressure to hear “Wow, a woman!” forces us to use a lot of the dehumanizing attacks thrown at us in these streets against our own, to vie for the few opportunities there are for women to make history.
I digress. Luckily — no, thankfully — the organizers of BWTT created an atmosphere where every single attendee practically KNEW she was great. Whether you just had an idea or wanted to meet new friends, or you just completed your first acquisition, you were SOMEBODY worth celebrating. You were history in the making.
I don’t know if I can describe what it was I felt. Maybe I’ll just give you some examples. I walked up to a woman who I never met before, who’s been recognized with various awards and high profile magazines, and asked: “hey, I have this idea for my company, would you help me?” And she said yes! I don’t think I had the most polished pitch; I can’t even remember half of what I said to her. But there was something about her vibe or aura that said I’m here for you. She even held my hand as we spoke, and gave me hug once we finished.
Then there was lunch, sponsored by SAP (shout out to your catering team). I sat at a table with one of the conference’s notable panelists, and it was as if she lived to make me and my friends laugh. She talked and talked until the catering staff kicked us out, walking us through her spiritual journey and decision to use food and her passion for mentoring to help young girls tempted to sell their bodies for money. It’s so sad, but true, that 9 out of 10 of us expect to get sexually harassed or forced into using our bodies in order to be heard. I’m excited to stay in touch and support her cause any way that I can.
Then there was Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who gave a speech that you can tell was genuine. She, for the most part, was shocked that there were so many of us women thinking about solving the same issues and wanting to work together to solve them. “It’s critical that we know that you exist,” she said about the lawmakers in Congress. “I can’t wait to get back Washington and tell them ‘I was in the room! I saw it with my own eyes!’” I walked up to her later to thank her for her words of encouragement, only to then be invited to meet with her to discuss work on initiatives like providing greater resources to female entrepreneurs in telecommunications.
There wasn’t a sense of irony or insincerity in anyone’s voice. If that was truly their sentiment, they were great actors. I exchanged so many phone numbers, laughs and hugs that I feel like I must have been in a very cheesy dream. Wow…women pouring into each other a sense of belonging, even before or in spite of making history. It was awesome and inspiring.
Try posting a “Wow, a woman!” story this month. It doesn’t have to be Susan B. Anthony or Shirley Chisholm and whoever else is usually on the roster for March. Look around you. Look within you. Find someone waking up every morning and not giving up. Someone who hasn’t heard in a long time, “you’re doing a great job.” You’ll never know what type of positive effect you’ll have on these women until you try changing up how you celebrate women.