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Celebrating women: changing the narrative

Friday December 27, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

Cook Islands News published a letter written by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff on December 18, and I’ve been thinking about her words every day since.

I don’t intend to rehash her story here, not because it’s not insightful, but because she deserves to carry on living her life and doing her job away from the spotlight of public scrutiny.

I do, however, want to pick up a torch she lit in writing that letter, and run with it. She spoke of the roadblocks to equality that women in today’s world still encounter, even if we as a society pay lip service to their eradication.

She spoke of the slanderous lies spread about her – lies about her motivation, morality, and the means she used to land a high-ranking position. She dismissed them as baseless and false.

I applaud her for speaking up. I applaud her courage.

Because the sad truth is that hers is not an isolated story. In too many cases, women in positions of power do not receive the same treatment and respect and public assessment as men in positions of power.

In too many cases, the intentions and actions of a successful and professional woman are called into question. Why? Very rarely do we whisper about a man whose promotion was based solely on his romantic relationship with his boss. So why do we gossip this way about women?

Dr Barbara Brock, a professor of education at Creighton University, calls it career sabotage – a tactic of using gossip and slander to make a woman appear “professionally incompetent”. Brock interviewed female educational leaders across the United States about their experiences with career sabotage, and concluded that much of this gossip comes from the mouths of women.

Some social psychologists believe this kind of gossip is fuelled by insecurity, by the envy one woman feels over another woman’s success.

Of course, the gender debate is deserving of a space more substantial than this. Theories abound. Tomes have been written on equality and women’s empowerment, and I do not intend to summarise them here.

I just want to remind us that the gender bias exists. I also want to remind us that it’s not just men who are engaging in this kind of gossip. We are all responsible.

A report compiled in June by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) observed that “the collective message sent by the media is that a woman’s value and power are tied to her youth, beauty and sexuality, and not to her capacity as a leader or contributor to society”.

We are both the creators and consumers of these media messages. We continue to perpetuate them in our friendship circles and workplaces, and competent women like our chief of staff get caught in the crossfire.

We – both men and women – need to change the conversation. We need to applaud those Cook Islands women – and there are so many of them – who have broken the glass ceiling and who sit proudly among men in boardrooms, houses of parliament, and international conferences. We need to pay attention to the women who are changing the narrative, and rather than berate them, we need to celebrate them.

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