The following is a condensed version of the speech Ms. Flax-Brutus delivered at the International Women’s Day information fair on Friday at Peebles Hospital.
If anyone here knows me well, they would know that there are a few things that I am very passionate about, and two of those are tourism and women’s rights. I hope that what I share today would inspire you to think along the lines of the theme, “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.”
One of the greatest athletes of all time, who is still writing history, Serena Williams, once said, “I’d be the greatest of all time if I were a man.” That brief statement speaks volumes to the situation that we as women face in the world today. We are judged by a different standard than men. The fact that there is even an International Women’s Day is itself symptomatic of a world that had decidedly failed to regard women as equals to our male counterparts. The struggle for the recognition of women is real, and I have decided to be a champion for the cause by advocating for equality for the rights, whether at home or in the workplace.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I want preferential treatment for women. What I ask for and demand is a level playing field: no more, no less. Judge us fairly. Some of us may be sidelined by the fight and the fear, so we keep silent. I remember being told by a male colleague to “stay in my lane.” Would he have said that to someone of the male persuasion? I reminded him that the entire highway is my lane. Another colleague also indicated that I was too passionate. Again, would he have said this to a male colleague? Maybe or maybe not. I’m not stumbling over gender: Why should they? We should not be apologetic about thinking equal.
I must share a few statistics to stay demonstrate how unequally we are treated.
According to the “Women’s Leadership Gap” report by The Centre for American Progress, “Despite the fact that women earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees in the United States, they comprise only 255 of executive and senior level officials and managers, hold 20 percent of board seats and only six percent are CEOs.”
Bringing it closer to home, while there are no similar national statistics, I took it upon myself to conduct an informal survey of our statutory boards and found the following. On the BVI Tourist Board, four of 13 members are female; on the BVI Electricity Corporation board, two of 10; on the BVI Ports Authority board, three of 11; on the BVI Airports Authority board, two of 10; on the National Bank of the BVI board, five of nine.
In earlier days, we were told that we did not have the educational or professional qualifications for the top jobs.
We have gone out and surpassed men in educational and professional pursuits, but still there are barriers. I would like to see the day when we as women get an equal opportunity for the top jobs and get equal pay. When we are being recruited, our gender will not be a factor. No longer should we be pigeonholed into the traditional female roles. Those of us who are qualified to lead should have an equal opportunity to lead and we must take our seat at the table.
In most countries in the region, over 30 percent of all managers are women, and in 19 countries they represent 40 percent or more of managers, on par with the most developed nations in Europe and North America. With 59 percent of all managers being women, Jamaica has the highest proportion of women managers, not only in the region but in the world, followed by Belize, the Cayman Islands and Colombia with 50 percent or more. Unfortunately, I could find no statistics for VI. According to a senior legal professor at University of the West Indies, “The highest rate does not mean that all is well. There are still issues to be resolved.”
‘Price to be paid’
Sadly, there is a price to be paid as a woman in a leadership role in the VI. I have not spoken publicly on this often, but as proud as I am of my accomplishments and my role, there is a heavy price to be paid for where I sit. We pay an even heavier price if we refuse to succumb to the status quo and if we refuse to stay silent.
If you speak to some of our ladies in leadership roles they may admit — if they dare — how tough it can be; how ostracising it can be; how demeaning it can be. I have been talked down to. Attempts have been made to sully my professional and personal reputation. I’ve been sidelined from meetings. I’ve been reported on and reported to. You name it. My life in the VI as a woman in a leadership role has been a challenge, but it has also been an opportunity. These challenges do not deter me from striving for equality every chance I get. The key is to think equal, and I do what I can to share what I can with other women. One day our daughters and nieces and granddaughters will not have the struggles that we have had as we would have helped to pave a better way for them.
We will think equal because we are equal. Start by building your resume. I am not only talking about your list of academic and professional achievements that you will put in a document, but I speak here about your collection of experiences that will make you a more marketable and fulfilled individual. The saying goes, “Build your network so you can build your net worth.” Be strategic in your alliances and in planning your career path. Personally, I did not become director of tourism overnight: It was a building block of experiences, friendships and acquaintances; great mentorship goal setting and achieving; and education and personal development that helped me to attain the position I am in today. And I am still striving for more, knowing that my personal growth is not only for my benefit but that I will help improve the lives of many other persons along the way and mostly for the community of Virgin Gorda and the VI as a whole.
After all, success is a great thing, but we must not use it for our selfish ambition. It must be about others; it must be about using our success to inspire and change others. We must build smart, but we must not apologise for building on our own experiences and our own successes.
Building smart also refers to us as women building each other up and being a source of encouragement, inspiration and motivation. We understand us better than anyone else. We understand the daily challenges we face: issues such as the professional glass ceiling, the glass cliff, balancing work and home, balancing our nurturing side with mental toughness, and receiving the respect of our colleagues. Ladies, when given the opportunity we can truly make great leaders, but we need to be intentional with supporting and lifting up each other both professionally and personally. The same traits that others tend to see as weakness are indeed strengths as they show the essence of our womanhood. We own the mastery of soft skills of persuasion, communication, listening, empathy and accessibility, and we focus on personal growth and motivation. We are not challenged with collaborating, nor do we look for credit for accomplishments. We know how to get it done!
‘World of change’
We live in a dynamic world of change. Change is not happening at an annual, monthly or weekly rate, but every second. We must be innovative and creative, viewing these changes not as obstacles but rather as opportunities. I believe that women are uniquely qualified to adapt to rapid change. The same traits that others see as weaknesses are indeed some of our greatest strengths. We own the mastery of the soft skills of persuasion, communication, listening, empathy, patience and accessibility. And we focus on personal growth and motivation not only for ourselves but for those we lead.
Women with passion, courage, dedication and perseverance are always under fire, but we must use that fire for change and for innovation.
Who among us wears gold jewellery? I can see some fine pieces from where I stand. Gold is forged through fire and must go through several stages or changes, including cooling, to arrive at the piece of jewellery you are wearing today. So we too must be creative and innovative, turning challenges into opportunities, being able to adapt to change quickly and harness those changes for our benefit. Let us be fully prepared to be the change we seek.
We must be innovative by seeing ourselves as a tool for inspirational empowerment of other women. We must see opportunity in every experience. We must find innovative ways by breaking that glass ceiling that is out there. I may not break it, but I sure as hell will give it a good kick so that others may have the opportunity to build a bridge over it or path around it. We must see challenges as opportunities and an opportunity for innovative change.
It is up to us to think equal and to be equal, and to do that we need to build each other up. This is our innovation. We need to work together for change. We need to be the change that we seek. And about that seat at the table — no, don’t ask for the seat. The time is now that you take that seat in confidence. Walk into that room, pull that chair and take your seat. It’s yours. It might have been a man’s world, but in my world not anymore. It’s our turn now.
I leave you with an empowering thought and one that gives me strength on those tough days. I will speak my truth. I will be brave. I will be bold and I will be beautiful. I will embrace my flaws, yet I will celebrate my wins and I will smile. I will smile because I want to, not because someone told me to. I will hold my ground, and I will spread love and take no nonsense. I won’t play the victim. I am a warrior. I know my worth, and I will protect my energy.
Ladies, share your magic. Laugh loud and proud and don’t sweat the small stuff. And above all: Blow your own damn mind. Think equal. Think smart. Innovate.
We will settle for nothing less.