The infinite depth and strength of women

When I started to think about International Women’s Day my thoughts immediately turned to the women with whom I spend the most time. They are my best friends, my colleagues, and the smartest, most loyal people I know. Below, you’ll find three stories that introduce three members of my incredible tribe. They have all read and agreed to allow me to publish these tiny glimpses into their lives, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Is it all in her head?

Her hands were swollen. Anyone could see it. They were bright red and her formerly thin fingers looked like sausages ready to burst.

She can’t take the lid off her son’s water bottle without pain shooting up her arm, she also can’t type, and she can’t wash her own hair without having to sit down afterward with her hands in splints. It’s arthritis — some sort of auto-immune version — and it’s something that we can see with our own eyes some of the time, but not all of the time.

The swelling goes away occasionally but the pain remains and that’s when the doubts creep in: “Is it really that bad? Is it mostly in my head? Am I imagining this?” she asks herself, wishing someone could jump into her body to feel what she’s feeling just to let her know that it’s real, and that she’s not making it up. She’s grown up being told that all the things she feels are figments of her imagination, or that she’s “oversensitive,” or a “hypochondriac.” Friends and physicians all tell her that she’d feel better if she lost weight, went to yoga, or meditated. Great advice, but none of it will help her fill her son’s water bottle.

at the breaking point

She’s limping. She took a puck to the back of the leg during the first hockey game of the season and now it’s swollen and bruised; when she puts any weight on it tears leak out her brilliant cornflower blue eyes. She is still standing, though, because she’s got kids to get to school and she’s got a deadline today and several back-to-back meetings. She’s got a desk job anyway, she tells herself, so she’ll be fine if she can just get these damn lunches packed.

She sends the kids off, sits down, and props up her foot. She leans over her keyboard and begins answering emails and taking meetings. There’s a bottle of Advil beside her. Her ankle has a heartbeat, but it’s bound to start feeling better soon, and if it doesn’t, she’ll take herself to the hospital — after she puts the kids to bed.

It’s broken. Her ankle is broken, and she’s treating it with elevation, ice packs and Advil because, let’s face it, she’s a woman, and she has hurt worse.

Soar (but not too high)

Her beautiful, athletic husband died four years ago. One moment they were laughing in the sunshine at an outdoor festival and the next moment he was hooked up to life support and she was saying goodbye. She has little memory of the days that followed. She remembers having a hard time going back to their house, the one they were just beginning to fill with memories. She remembers that some days she showered, but some days she didn’t. She remembers everyone telling her to “make sure you eat,” so she ordered a lot of pizza and watched it grow cold on the coffee table. She remembers watching a lot of television — shows with endless seasons that she could disappear into. Her blinds stayed closed for two weeks, leaving her house in a perpetual shade of sadness.

She gave herself a time limit because that’s the advice she gives her clients. “Feel the feelings, honour them, but don’t unpack,” she has been known to say, so when her time was up, she cleared away the pizza, opened the blinds and got dressed. She went back to work because people were counting on her. She plastered a smile on her face, and sometimes it was genuine. She laughed a little bit, and it didn’t hurt like she thought it might. She looked across at her clients and passed them tissues and shared her wisdom. She soared slowly from the charred bits of her shattered future. She shook her fist at fate as if to say, “you thought you could destroy me? Fuck you. Just watch how high I’ll climb.”

Her rise is so profound that most people look at her and forget about all that she has lost. They’re skeptical and resentful of her grace and ambition. She didn’t grieve enough, they think; she didn’t do it “right.” Those who love her see bravery. Those who don’t fear that her strength makes them appear weak. “How can she be so focused,” they ask one another. “She seems to be handling this well,” they murmur, inauthentically. She hears every whisper and brushes them away, but not before they leave their little cuts.

For the men in the office

March 8 (today) is International Women’s Day.

I could mark the occasion by writing about the mental load of motherhood; a subject that both fascinates and infuriates me. I could write about glass ceilings, about recognizing unconscious bias, about equity, diversity and inclusion, about how women need to be more intentional as they champion and empower other women, or I could write about some of the women who inspire me daily (there are so many).

But today I overheard a male colleague mention International Women’s Day, and he suggested showing his appreciation by bringing in flowers, or maybe pastry.

He wants to be an ally, but he’s missing the point. Shove your flowers and cake and whatnot. Creating balance in the boardroom isn’t easy, but there are simple things men can do, as colleagues, as allies, every single day. I’m not writing about institutional change. I’m talking about the small things that you do every day to remind us that we’re not like you. Bare with me if this sounds like womansplaining:

You take the notes
Next time you’re in a meeting, offer to take the minutes. I can’t count how many times I’ve been the only woman in a meeting, and when it comes time to decide who takes the minutes, all eyes turn to me. Today, and every day after, you’re going to offer to take the minutes. Minute-taking is gender neutral, and you’re going to be great at it! Let’s hear no more of this, “but you type so much faster than me,” garbage, either. I took Keyboarding 9 just like the rest of the 40-ish-year-old Canadians out there, so it’s not my fault if you haven’t applied yourself and you’ve let your skills lapse. Now’s the time to brush up.

Don’t ask me to bake (even though I’m amazing at it)
When that meeting concludes, don’t ask whether I’m going to bring goodies to the next one. Even if I had a refrigerator full of homemade cinnamon buns, I would NOT bring them to the boardroom so as not to set a precedent. How about you bring treats! (And don’t ask your wife to make them, either).

Share in the shit jobs
Does your office have a communal kitchen with a dishwasher? Mine does. It also has a refrigerator. The refrigerator gets cleaned when the women in the office finally get fed up, and I’ve yet to see a male colleague empty the dishwasher. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, I just haven’t seen it. (While we’re at it, I won’t completely discount the Sasquatch. Canada’s a big country. It’s possible.) Our office kitchen also has laminated signs instructing people what to do should they notice the dishwasher full of clean or dirty dishes, or if they are confused about the difference between compost and garbage. Allied men — how about you read the signs?

Keep inviting me out for drinks, even when I say no
A big barrier to the advancement of women in the workplace is that we often miss the informal networking that takes place outside the office due to domestic demands. We’re less likely to go for drinks after work, or cut out early on a Friday to fit in nine holes — not because we don’t WANT to go out for drinks and create rich networks of powerful people — but because domestic responsibilities fall disproportionately on our shoulders. We’re often the ones picking children up from daycare, and making sure they eat and get to hockey practice on time. Often, we also end up missing out on the informal networking that takes place in the cafeteria, as we use our lunch breaks to run errands. And we’re barred from these informal boardrooms if they happen spontaneously. If I’m going out after work, I need to arrange things, so tell me the day before, please.

If I actually show up, don’t ask who’s looking after my kids
Hands up if you’ve been at a conference, or gone out with colleagues after work, only to have a male colleague ask who’s looking after your kids. Wait, my husband’s hand is not up! That’s weird!

Creating equity in the workplace isn’t a joke, and it isn’t simple. But there are some simple things that our colleagues can do as allies, as friends, to create a more inclusive workplace. And we’d all be better for it.