Work In Progress
Why I’d Rather Stand Out Than Fit In
There is literally no better time in history to be a woman! While I would never claim that all women, worldwide, have overcome the struggles of war, poverty and patriarchal systems, I think we can agree that our collective star is on the rise.
The evidence is there in the grades of our school girls and in female university applications. It’s there in the number of female business start-ups; slowly but surely, it’s there in the percentage of women on our corporate boards. The World Economic Forum in Davos (playground of the world’s bankers, economists and financiers) was chaired solely by women this year. And more encouraging still, is that the ascent of women is right there in the number of elected, female heads of state - the UK, (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales), Germany, Norway, Chile, Bangladesh, Namibia, Taiwan, New Zealand… by my estimation 28 countries are currently run by women. Not nearly enough, but progress nonetheless.
Slogans like “We should all be feminists” and “The Future is Female” abound, inspiring hashtags and post shares. At first these may seem like vacuous commercialism on the part of big brands and t-shirt makers, but they do reflect the zeitgeist. It’s a form of pop radicalism that, at the very least, gives young women in particular, the confidence to celebrate being female - a status that in some countries still means subjugation, subservience or suffocation of opinion.
Growing up in Thatcherite, 80s Britain, attending an all-girls high school, I had no shortage of strong, female role models (politics aside) during my formative years. But my co-ed primary education was marred by a prolonged period of bullying. At 11 years old, I was the only girl in the top reading group with 6 boys, and boy did they bully me! Of course there was one ‘leader of the pack’ - he singled me out and rallied the troops. They mentally tortured me to the point where I only felt safe at home in my bed. Eventually I was too terrorised to attend school but when the teacher was informed, nothing changed. The head teacher, was similarly ineffectual. After many parental interventions, the situation was resolved. The solution? I would step down and work in a lower grade reading group while the bullies were allowed to progress!
What a shameful set of messages to send an impressionable, shy, but incredibly bright schoolgirl: Being female means lowering your academic aspirations! Being different deserves punishment! Standing out elicits ridicule!
My confidence was shattered.
I went on to achieve straight As in all my formal exams, a degree in Architecture and a successful career in business, but the scars of that early injustice have never fully healed.
Looking back, I realise that expressing my creativity through fashion was the well from which I drew my confidence as a young adult. A sartorial attempt to “fake it till you make it”, if you will. Even today, the right clothes can empower and instil confidence on days when I’d rather stay in my PJs under the duvet. It’s no accident that the penchant for “power dressing” came into its own as more women entered the male-dominated workplace of the yuppie-infused 80s. The style was intended as a kind of “uniform” that would command respect, authority and power in a culture where women still had little of each.
Thankfully, progress has been made and we no longer have to dress like a man in order to be seen as a professional woman.
I strongly believe in the concept of “bringing your whole self to work”. Why should we check our personalities (or gender) at the door when we hang our corporate security passes round our necks? Surely its the richness of each unique individual that brings companies to life and generates the best ideas. I was extremely fortunate to work in a progressive business that championed diversity, but I’m sure that even at a straight-laced establishment, I’d still have worn clashing colours and foregone the ‘business casual’ rule for a style all my own.
But I wasn’t always so sure…
Years ago, during a frank one-to-one with a boss whom I respect enormously, she advised me that being remembered solely for my clothes and curls was a tricky path to tread through the corporate echelons. This worried me – did my work not speak for itself? Surely, adding a little colour to the office with my brand of workwear was a harmless act of self-expression? But the doubt nagged me… When I repeated my concern to a colleague, he said: “at least you’re recognised and remembered for something”. As he went on to point out the numerous people that he thought were so ‘beige’ (his word) no one would even know what role they played in the corporate machine, I thought to myself, I’ll take ‘memorable’ over anonymity any day. After that, I didn’t tone down my style, if anything, I amped it right up! Wearing colourful, interesting outfits represented me - the person - not the unique employee number.
Self-expression through fashion is all too often dismissed as “frivolous” or “girly”.
Notwithstanding its confidence-boosting abilities, it’s worth remembering that the UK fashion industry is worth £66 billion and employs well over half a million people.* Not so “frivolous”, but I’ll happily call a £66 billion industry “girly” all day long!
Clearly we’ve still got a way to go to achieve parity in our pay packets - 200 years according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report! But the balance is shifting and as it does, we’re now competing with one another for the top jobs and the best projects - something which in itself is to be celebrated.
For that reason, the ability to create your own unique, personal brand, one that marks you out as a creative individual in a sea of corporate sameness, is more important than ever. (Let’s not forget, the robots are coming… and creatives will be the hardest to replace).
It does, however, boil down to confidence.
Without confidence, an haute couture dress might as well be a bin bag! Confidence is an elusive quality that too many women say they lack (myself included). Countless studies cited in women’s magazines remind us that women dress for the approval of other women, so I can’t help but wonder if we lack fashion confidence because we’re worried about what other women will think of us…
What if, on this International Women’s Day we pledged to never again make a negative comment about another woman? What if, instead, we committed to sisterhood - pure, supportive sisterhood?. The Old Boys Club has had its turn. Isn’t it time for a Women Supporting Women Club?
Finally, I’d like to share some of the most beautiful lines from Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
So for me, standing out is not about shining brighter, it’s about illuminating each and every one of us.
Thanks, Nx 💕
How will you #PressForProgress this International Women’s Day? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
For style tips on how to become unforgettable, check my previous post, Forget Me Not.