'Move forward with tenacity'

Last Friday I attended a symposium at Barnard, the famous women’s college in northern Manhattan. Its title was Women Changing the World. I know, it sounds grandiose – and if, like me, you cover the women’s space, you’ve attended a bunch of conference with similar names. You may be getting skeptical about what they actually do (this Huffington Post piece is a good read for any frequent women’s conference goer).

But this wasn’t a women’s empowerment conference in the sense I’ve come to expect. It wasn’t the typical ‘You Go Girl’ fare. This was a day that set out to highlight the ongoing work of women including Queen Noor of Jordan, Mamphela Ramphele, longtime political activist, doctor, and former managing director of the World Bank, and Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest ranking female police officer.

The panel I’m focusing on here was about change for women in the economy and the media.

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Mamphela Ramphele knows a thing or two about moving ahead in spite of obstacles. She was put in jail in South Africa during the aparteid era and has pushed against the establishment time and again. She touched on something we covered on the latest Broad Experience: men and the cult of masculinity. She called it ‘the toxic masculinity narrative,’ which is particularly strong in South Africa. She said she knows her two sons have been affected by this, as they didn’t have a father around to show them another way to live. This narrative essentially says men are strong, women are weak, and they must be subject to men’s rules. As a man you are allowed – almost expected – to hit your wife (or wives).

“We have the highest violence against women and children that’s reported anywhere in the world,” she said. “Why? Because men are trapped in this narrative of violence…women like me have a vested interest in seeing that men are protected from this toxicity.”

In South Africa, she said, there isn’t a tradition of reporting on issues that affect the marginalized – which in South Africa covers a lot of people. Much more varied coverage is needed, she said, and social media can help as well.

“We need to be bolder with social media to include those [women] who are currently excluded.”

I’m a big Financial Times reader and geek, frankly. So I was happy to see the FT’s US managing editor Gillian Tett on the panel along with the others.

Gillian Tett. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Gillian Tett. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

One of her first comments to the female audience resonated with me, and I hope will cheer those who are starting out and are low on confidence.

“If I had one message for the audience today who are students, if you’re feeling not very confident about where to go in life, pushing yourself forward into a leadership position, don’t worry,” she said. “When I was your age I didn’t even have the courage to get on the student newspaper.”

At a similar stage in my life I wanted to be an actress, but I didn’t have the courage to do any plays at university as I was so terrified of what others would think of me. I was also intimidated by the vast egos of many of the other wannabes. In hindsight, Britain didn't miss out on another Judi Dench, and I like to think I’ve worked out my dramatic tendencies on the radio since then.

Tett wasn’t even expected to go to university – she said her mother aspired for her to be “a chalet girl” (for non-Brits, this means someone who goes out and works in ski resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria, etc. while looking decorative). “But I went to university, and I became an anthropologist.”

This kind of thing is so important for younger women to hear – you don’t magically gain confidence overnight. As others have said and written, confidence is something you gain by doing, usually by doing things that seem utterly beyond you.

When Tett ended up at the FT in her twenties after several years of working in parts of the Caucuses and southeast Asia she wanted “to write about wars and international politics, and I’m sitting here writing about the dollar/yen rate.” But she realized pretty quickly that understanding the world of money was just like learning another language, and if she’d learned local languages like Pashtun, “I could damn well learn the language of finance.”

She did, and she’s now one of the paper’s top finance writers with two weekly columns. She also sounded early notes of warning about an impending financial bust before the 2008 crash happened.

“If you have the confidence to move forward with tenacity… life has an amazing way of bringing out the best in all of us,” she said.

She also talked about the status of women in the media, another topic close to my heart. My classes at Columbia Journalism School are always two-thirds female, but will these women be leading newsrooms in ten or twenty or thirty years? The current numbers on women leaders in the media are depressing, and I’m not convinced they’ll shift simply because there are so many women entering the profession today.

One thing Tett does is advise young women journalists to challenge themselves: “Don’t just become books editor, become economics editor as well.” In other words, do the hard stuff too. It tells your bosses you're up for a challenge and helps your career.

Finally, she had useful advice for the point in many women’s lives at which they want to start a family: she said it’s vital to keep some kind of a toe in the waters of work. Don’t give up completely. Even if it’s going in once a week she said, “You will have muscle memory when you go back.”