A few weeks ago I attended an event run by Facebook and Enterprise Nation all about getting more women to run their own businesses. As a woman who has been running her own business for years and now has a company that supports other women to do the same, I was so happy to see this event happening and to go along to hear more about what they had to say.
I thought that I might come back and want to write all about the content of the event but no, what struck me more than anything was that I was probably the only woman there wearing a pair of trainers and the first thing I had spotted in my wardrobe that morning. I didn't look scruffy, I had brushed my hair and popped on my regular 30 seconds of make-up but my thoughts that morning had been all about getting my four children to school, hopping in an Uber, answering emails, reading about the speakers and getting there on time.
When I got there I had a minor panic that I'd missed the memo about getting seriously dressed up for this event and that perhaps I wouldn't be let in with trainers. Everyone was so dressed up to sit in a room and listen to other people talk and then network with each other over coffee and pastries. None of them were getting on stage and no-one was getting married! If this had been a few years ago I would have probably turned right round and gone straight back home. Fortunately I now have enough confidence in who I am, what I am doing and what I wear for the work that I do that I stayed.
What happened next intrigued me even more. All of the speakers except for one were women. All the women were very dressed up and they'd all had their hair done for the occasion. Fair enough you might think and so did I. Even if I did spend a little bit too much time distracted by what they were wearing and wondering how their hair was quite so big and glossy. It was stunning!
But that wasn't what really interested me. It was this. When the only male speaker at the event got on stage he was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and trainers. It must have taken him about two minutes to get ready that morning. Amazing. And in this outfit he gave the most brilliant talk. His outfit just didn’t matter, but his words really did.
I did have issues with the fact that he was there on stage at all and why Facebook couldn't have sent a female member of their design team to give the talk at this Women in Business event but this was forgiven because he was great, inspiring and he was there in a t-shirt and jeans.
Now, I totally know all about feeling good and confident to get up on stage. I've given a lot of talks at events and shot a whole heap of videos. And I absolutely know that it's important to think about what I'm wearing and to feel comfortable. But that word comfortable is very important here. Not squashed into a dress that looks oh so pretty but makes moving around or eating lunch far too difficult. Or shoes that make me worry about climbing up the steps to give my talk.
At the moment I feel like this. If I go to a tech startup event I usually find myself in a room of 80% men and 20% women. Men talk to Stef like I'm not even there. Some of them panic if I even say hello. I really hate it. Sometimes I am lucky enough to talk to the guys who, like Stef, treat me as an equal. And they don't care about what I'm wearing, it's what I'm saying or how I'm listening that is important.
If I go to an event especially for women it's all about the outfit, the shoes and the hair first. And the atmosphere feels like I'm back at my all girls secondary school. Yes, I meet some great, inspiring women but that sense of "what does she looks like?" is most certainly in the air. I also don't really like there even needing to be women only events. And so attending them in the first place always makes me feel rather uncomfortable and cross with the world.
As a women in business I have enough obstacles to battle with. Now that I run a startup with my husband I see this more clearly than ever before. I see how completely focussed he can be. I see how he doesn't have to think about the home, the food shopping, the washing, the logistics of play dates, parties and after school activities. He also doesn’t have to get up with our children in the night or look after them when they are poorly. This is totally not a dig at him. This is just how it is in our household and our company right now. We're working on it and learning about what's going to make our company and our family work best. We will report back about all this in good time.
But it’s not just the family and home stuff. It’s so much more than that. Being a woman in business is simply not the same as being a man in business. I am not sure if that’s going to change in my lifetime but I do hope that it will in my two daughters’ life times.
Nothing is going to change unless we do though and I really, really think we could all support each other as women by agreeing that it’s so much more about what we’re saying and doing than what we’re wearing and how glossy our hair is.
The entry price to the event I went to was £0 but if you add it all up there is a big price difference between what a man might have to pay to be in a room and what a woman might have to pay to be in the same room. The man arrives in his regular jeans and t-shirt, taking very little time out of his schedule to get ready, while the woman arrives in a new dress, with her hair and make-up all done. This will have definitely taken her more time and probably cost her a lot more money.
This is just to get to an event. What a huge obstacle we are creating for ourselves when there are so many others already put up that we need to break down to have a fair and equal space in the tech and business world.
Next time you go to an event try focussing on what you want to get out of the event and who you might like to try and talk to while you’re there, way before you even think about what you’re going to wear.
PS Stef and I will be starting an event series some day soon(ish). It’s been on our list for a long time now. It will be an event for both men and women. We will all talk to each other and we will be able to just come along in whatever we happen to be wearing that day. It will be beautiful. It will make our hearts sing and inspire us all to do brilliant work and make wonderful things happen. Watch this space.