Challenging and changing the gender conversation #SeePotential

100Women in Hedge Funds invited me to the HK Stock Exchange today to speak at their Market Opening Ceremony. Katarina Royds bravely asked me to share my views on the development on women in the workplace. Katarina is a brilliant leader, I took inspiration from her.... And here it is....

I'm here today because I want to challenge where we're headed. I worry that we're approaching the development of women in the workplace as a zero sum game. It's not. We need to embrace the potential of men and women alike and develop together if we're to progress at all. There is no real value created in a zero sum game, only winners and losers.

I was born in 1983. I grew up in Australia, in a small town of 120,000 people, about the same number of people working in the IFC. My mum stayed at home to raise five children, and together with my father, raised us to have respect for everyone, to treat others as we would like to be treated and imparted in us a belief that if we worked hard, we could do anything.  

Growing up in the 90s meant I had exposure to countless examples of brave men and women standing up for what they believe in and as a result, initiating mass social change. This had a profound impact on me during my formative years and definitely shaped who I am. I read and watched Nelson Mandela’s Freedom Speech over and over again. I cheered when Princess Diana left Prince Charles and cried when she died so tragically. As power was becoming more evenly distributed, and empowerment on the rise, I grew up appreciating the bold men and women who fought hard to shape the world we live in today.

The men who have fought physically and mentally on the battlefields and in the boardrooms deserve our gratitude and respect. And the heroic and courageous women, who challenged the status quo and took a stand against discrimination and inequality, I salute them.

I acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices made and know that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.

Which is why I want to challenge where we’re headed.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of statistics. It’s hard to hide from the constant tirade of articles about the lack of women in boardroom positions, leaning in and the glass ceiling. And as I read and listen to the rhetoric, I can’t help but feel it’s not driving the right change.

The undertone where men are painted as the enemy and women must fight men – is self-defeating and not productive.

If our future is one with more opportunities for women, at the expense of men, it’s not a hopeful one.

Empowerment isn’t a limited resource; just because we give it to one demographic doesn’t mean we have to take it away from another. Women don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a zero sum game.

While it’s true that women are underrepresented, in business, politics and other areas, and there are many parts of the world where women and girls are still oppressed and treated horrifically, I worry about the future we are creating with such an adversarial focus on gender. If nothing changes, I see a future where the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction- men are oppressed as women once were.

Racial discrimination in South Africa is an example. If you are a white male in South Africa today, the system is stacked against you. Not to discredit the complex and difficult racial history, but today thousands of white South Africans are leaving their country because it’s almost impossible to get a job.

Blacks were oppressed for decades, now whites are facing prejudice in a different more circumspect way. It’s an interesting debate and there are many sides to it, but oppression is still oppression. How do we as a society move past the history of hurt and injustices to create positive and productive change?

I had an experience recently that altered my perspective. In December 2012 I left Hong Kong for a month and went to live in Liberia. I was warned that it was extremely dangerous; I would most likely get stabbed, kidnapped, raped, maybe even killed. People looked at me in shock when I explained I was going to hang out in the slums of West Point and work with an NGO that gets little girls off the streets and into school.

I would go to school each day and spend time with the girls. I saw with my own eyes young girls prostituting themselves for money to buy food and water. You and I may never comprehend what they’ve been through, and yet they turn up to school every day, eager to learn and play, laugh and dance.

While their stories were heart-breaking, their rehabilitation was inspiring. However it wasn’t the girls who left an imprint in my heart. It was the little boys stood outside the school gate, who day in and day out, would look on with sadness and emptiness, as they were shut out of the school. I asked why we couldn’t let the boys in too and they said the school was only for girls, and it was the girls in the community we must empower and take care of.

And so it went on, day after day, casting these little boys aside. They too were eager to learn, to play, to be educated, and to be included. And yet, we excluded them.

The image of sadness in their eyes has stayed with me. Their sense of loss, of being excluded is never far from my mind. And it got me thinking about the present moment in history, I started questioning the future we are creating:

Are we fuelling an ‘us versus them’ mentality and creating even greater divides?

I’m standing here today because I want to change the direction in which our society is headed and I’m hoping you will join me. It’s time the conversation changed, it’s time we stopped talking about ratios and statistics and started asking different questions.

  • What if we focused on empowering everyone to be the best version of themselves?
  • What if we stopped perpetuating discrimination and started seeing potential in everyone?
  • What if we drew inspiration from Mandela's tolerance and sheer determination to end apartheid and rather than repeating the mistakes of the past look for a third way?

I want to live in a world where gay or straight, black or white, Gen Z or Baby Boomer, male or female, Asian or Western, Christian or Jewish, we look each other in the eyes, and with mutual respect, we look for potential and we lift each other up.

The problem is we don’t have commonplace mutual respect and until we do, societies will continue on this path to adversarial oppression.

And I’m not talking about men’s respect for women. Or men standing up for women’s rights. I’m talking about mutual respect.

I’m talking about having respect for those whose beliefs or skin colour or gender may differ to our own. It’s only then we can see beyond face value and look for potential in everyone, making everyone better, not one side worse.

What does it look like to stop the judgement and remove the labels?

It means we start looking for and seeing potential in everyone and everything.

I am where I am today because others in my life saw potential in me.

They gave me the courage to stand for something, to fail fast, fail often and fail forward. Bold enough to have a go, start again, push for change.

Like you in the room today and the 15,000 members of 100WHF, I didn’t get where I am by perpetuating discrimination, complaining about gender inequality and percentages. I did get where I am today because of courage, grit and determination.  

  • Do I wake up in the morning and worry about whether the men I’m pitching against are getting a higher daily rate….no I don’t, I invest my energy in being awesome.
  • Do I want my actions to match what I preach? Yes I do. In fact I just hired a new staff member based on the potential I see in him. James happens to be a 23 year old white south African man who moved to HK a month ago.
  • Do I imagine a day when the gender conversation stops? Do I dream of a meritocracy – hell yes.

I think back to the little girls in Liberia and can’t help but wonder what will happen to the little boys. As the girls get educated and empowered, the boys are being left behind. Who is going to educate them and how will we stop the cycle of women being mistreated and abused? We have a responsibility to better ourselves, to better our community, and that means all of us.

We all have the power to effect change by demonstrating leadership. What impact do you have on those around you? Who are you mentoring and how far are you spreading your brilliance?

Conversations create movements and movements change the world – is success being a statistic for statistics sake? Or is success being empowered without the constraint of gender, race or religion?

My challenge to you is to see what happens when you stop looking on the outside and start looking on the inside - if you see potential, you have a choice to create opportunity for that person. Spend the day today in pursuit of potential. Suspend judgement, remove the labels, ask different questions, and explore potential. I guarantee you will stumble across awesomeness.

It’s not a zero sum game.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sui-Mei Thompson from The Women’s Foundation through TEDxWanchai Women last month and she said something that’s inspired me.

Her daughter said to her recently, "Mum, when I grow up I want to work at the Women’s Foundation" and she said "Well darling, I hope by then we don’t need one."

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

Emma Reynolds

@emmareynolds3