I transitioned from standing at the front of an auditorium scrolling through powerpoint slides to filling my plate in the buffet line at the restaurant in the heart of Delhi. My company sent my boss and me to facilitate a design thinking workshop for our team in India. As I was filling my plate with curries, lentils, and naan, I noticed the only other woman in attendance with a full plate of food, patiently waiting and looking in my direction. As my plate nearly overflowed, I walked towards her with joyful anticipation that she wanted to share lunch with me. Once I neared her, I smiled and turned to find a table at the front with the rest of the team. Her first words to me quickly spilled out, “oh no, we have to sit over here…” I watched as she moved towards the back of the restaurant, away from the laughter and chatter of the other co-workers.
My heart began to race as the situation slowly became clear. I stood motionless watching her walk away. The women were not to eat with the men, but segregated from them. My mind flooded with confusion and uncertainty. How would the team respect my role to lead this training, while they couldn’t respect my gender when sharing a meal together?
The cultural diversity is real and I struggle to find the balance between respect and advocating for the women muted by the generations of men who have dug the gender gap deeper. Unfortunately, this feeling is far too familiar for the women in the corporate corridors of America.
I reflect back on my own experience a few weeks prior.
Half past five on a Friday, I sat at my desk scrolling through the emails I had ignored over the last few days. I just spent over 70 hours that week working with a team to reach our deadline. The newest guy on the team pulled on his coat and strolled by my desk asking if I was going to the bar for a celebratory drink. I looked at him confused, and once he realized that I wasn’t on the list, he quickly uttered “have a great weekend” and scooted away.
I thought America lived beyond the time when “invite-only” happy hours meant invitations to the boy’s club, where our future leaders were selected. Although my heart aches for a sense of belonging in the corporate chatter, I refuse to rest in the mediocrity of it all.
I believe that a leader is built not on a platform of power, but is built for a culture of vulnerability, courage and empowerment.
Leading a team requires curating a space that feels safe to try something different; to fail, to mess up and then take those wadded up mistakes and form something new. This type of leadership should know no gender or divide. This role is for the individual who seeks to serve the creative brains who work hard to solve problems.
Bending down to wash the feet of the ones who show up each day putting their best foot forward is the way Jesus led his disciples and is how I dream to one day lead a team. I want to cultivate a team that sees the best in each other and encourages rather than slaughters, as there is no competition in creativity.
Unfortunately, women tend to be more competitive with each other in the corporate world, because we inherently believe that there are fewer opportunities for us as we get closer to the top. We are competing to be the one who will fill the gap of diversity.
My mind shifts back to the present moment in Delhi. I pull my shoulders back and stride over to our isolated lunch table seeking a connection in this confusion. The restaurant server quickly rushed over to tell us we were invited to sit at the front with the rest of our team. My new friend’s eyes widened, as she was shocked and taken back by his response. Inclusion isn’t something she was used to but something she was ready for.
As we finally settle into our seats among the men on our team, I watch as she joins in the conversation with a comment that fills the table with a round of laughter. I sense a sort of breakthrough has emerged from her.
We are the generation of women that can join together in the midst of corporate confusion. We are the generation of women that will crack open the glass ceiling. We are the women our daughters and granddaughters can look up to as role models. We are the women who can remind them they are welcome at the table because they are worthy, they are brilliant, and they belong.
Alison Shields lives in a constant state of wonder, giving her an eagerness to learn new topics and listen to others share their stories as a User Experience Researcher. She believes understanding users through empathy is the foundation of good design, and seeks to provide clarity around other’s complex experiences. Alison celebrates the life God has given her with her dearly loved husband in southwest Michigan.