Six years ago today, on March 6th, 2014 my beloved mother Shree Lakhsmi Olajoyegbe died – very unexpectedly and I was 7 months pregnant with my daughter Ruby – she was my guiding light, so as you can imagine, it felt nothing short of devastating.
I’ve chosen to share this because as part of the celebration of International Women’s Day 2020, I’d kindly been asked by PwC’s Gender Balance Network to deliver a talk. However, when I realized today was the date upon which we would be celebrating and the chosen topic of ‘celebrating women’s achievements’, I almost turned the opportunity down. Not through a lack of gratitude, it’s always an honour to be invited to speak, particularly on a day of such international significance.
Rather, it dawned on me just how exposing it would be. So often we are guided to ‘show up’ and bring our best, our full and our authentic selves to work, especially as emergent leaders. But due to the legacy of our corporate culture and the bias we face, it’s not always so easy.
Don’t cry at work and don’t show too much emotion loomed large for me today as hangovers from my previous corporate career. I realised that today would involve me bringing my whole self, but perhaps not my best one.
However, it would feel utterly disingenuous and disrespectful of me not to mention this amazing woman’s achievement, who was a pioneer in her own right and a source of inspiration to many.
In truth, I wasn’t so much worried about mentioning her, in fact I’d done so in a talk at a women’s leadership summit at the end of last year. It was held at the House of Commons and my mother had come to England in the 60s, a very young woman from Assam, North East India and she had proudly become the first Assamese woman to work for the British Government, as a civil servant.
So that was fine. My worry was rather that every year I usually take this day off, to mark her anniversary and I often do it alone, as it’s a tough one for many reasons. Not only does it mark the passing of her life, but the death of a tightly held dream. Now I would be sharing all this with 250+ people that I didn’t know… and trying to justify why it felt so relevant on this day.
I eventually worked through it to realize that mum showing up during the planning of both talks was actually quite a gift, as it left me wondering initially whether I’d not been paying her enough attention? And then subsequently questioning, what else had I not been paying enough attention to?
What part of me, was I not bringing today and WHY?
And I ask the same of you?
Why had the notion of achievement and success prompted me to close down?
Was the careless intertwining of the two, which can happen often in a work context, urging me to be less visible, less brave and less open?
As I sought to define the aspects of my story that fitted in, I started to reflect on how success and achievements can also be diminishing at times. How the greater the visibility we achieve, the greater the tendency can be to close down, because of the exposure we feel.
As a result, we can end up being less brave about who we really are, what we truly care about and how we add our voice to it. We become less creative and take less risks, as the perception is there’s too much to loose, rather than so much to learn from.
In a time where showing up with greater authenticity is being called for, its seems a greater awareness of the disconnect, between what is being asked of us, and the cultural conditions we are showing up in is necessary, if we are to help our people truly bridge the gap.
As for mum, she takes her rightful place today. She taught me many things, including to be present to oneself helps us stand in our truth, to dream big and speak up. It isn’t always comfortable, but I am showing up today for her, for myself and for all women. I am who I am because she listened, understood, held and amplified my voice, and I commit to do the same.
We’ve come very far, but there’s still much work to do.
So on this International Women’s Day 2020 it feels fitting to thank all women, those who have come before us, and those in our present and future. The life givers, the carers, the creators, the thinkers the collaborators and the doers.
Through their trials we learn and on their shoulders we stand. Always stronger together.
Gone, but never forgotten. R.I.P Shree Lakshmi Goswami Olajoyegbe.