Why Superheroes all have different Super Powers

Reflections on International Women’s Day 2018  (6 minute read)

Today the world celebrates International Women’s Day. A time to celebrate Inspirational Women, but today I also want to include inspirational people. That is – humans – I’m not bothered about the gender.

There is a collective role that all leaders, influencers, and team members have. That responsibility is to create meaningful progress to inclusion. Inclusion of not just women but different people, people that think, look, and behave in ways that might not be the same as you or I.

To get ahead as a woman we’re given a lot of advice, in fact in my line of work there is a nice long queue of people all to ready to give advice on what I should do to progress – including: don’t be so outspoken, dress less sparkly, cover your arms, be more like a man, be more feminine, don’t show off, get a new job, get a real job, wear less lip gloss, lose weight, wear thinner and higher heels, learn more STEM, speak with less of an accent,  and so on.

The reality is that while the women’s movement has come a long way, its progress is slow and not reflective of the contribution that women have to make.

It’s also true that people find their skills underused, unknown and untapped.

I suspect that everyone regardless of colour and class will have their own version of unwanted advice that gets thrown at them. Advice on what one should and shouldn’t do or say. Advice on what’s feasible for them to try to achieve, and what society expects from their role, and how high they are expected to aim, because some things are simply not possible. Luckily for me I ignored quite a lot of advice – from ‘you’re not pretty/thin/tall enough to be on TV’, ‘you’ll never be taken seriously’ to ‘You? Learn soldering? …But you’ll burn yourself’. Oh and so many more. You’ll have your own ones I’m sure.

Some people are already doing the thing they’ve always wanted to do for a salary that suits them. And I’ve decided they fall into two main groups. I call the first group Peacocks* – those who feel threatened by others and want to stop anyone getting on their patch. Peacocks worry about their mortgage or their profile and do everything in their power to hold on to their social status and the status quo. They are likely not to want to learn new things and would rather stick to ‘the way it’s always been done’.

I call the second group Phoenixes. Phoenixes are glorious. They dream and they do. They become positive mentors, helping the next generation realise their potential. They know how to innovate and always find ways to live well. They know there is enough to go round and that they can always find new ways to create opportunities for prosperity. They are still ambitious but want to accomplish their goals while being supportive, kind, and socially responsible to those around them. Like you, I’ve interacted with both types of these people. I think you can guess which type is happier, more fulfilled and more likely to have authentic connections with others. I grew up around peacocks, but I’m optimistic that there are more and more Phoenixes around. People are realising that making their environment better has a direct effect on their own well-being. Phoenixes know that helping others to fly could be construed as a healthy selfishness as it makes them feel part of something bigger – the magic of ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I want to be a Phoenix when I grow up.

(*yes, Peacocks are male but I’ve decided in this context my made-up term can also include women who use the same ‘gatekeeping’ tactics)

There’s a difference between recognising truth when a person tells us the truth,  and being thrown harsh words by someone for their own peace of mind.

Those harsh words repeated by many voices as we go through life erode our hopes, and threaten to compress our dreaming souls into quiet grey conformity.

Those harsh words are spoken so freely and thoughtlessly to many of us who are different. From outspoken or unsolicited anonymous online commentary to well-meaning yet undermining advice from loved ones, those harsh words have the potential to stop an amazing idea from being born.

Which is why I think it’s time more of us stopped listening to ‘society’ when it’s used as a lazy way to maintain a status quo which works for just a few peacocks.

I think society would benefit massively from becoming inclusive – a community where ideas from women and people who think differently are welcomed. Wouldn’t it be such a refreshing energy boost? New insights into existing challenges could create an amazingly fertile environment, and that’s when big problems get solved with good humour. Instead of feeling threatened, great leaders and strong people can hear previously unheard voices – and harness these ideas based on merit, not on what kind of human created it.

A group’s strength and reach is amplified because everyone’s strengths are diverse, not duplicated. How boring would a superhero ensemble movie be if everyone had the same super-power? They save the day by having different abilities and learning how to work together and combine their talents.

While the data shows us that there are fewer women than men working in and with technology, everyone reading this article knows that technology itself is not the problem. It can be learned by anyone – class, race, gender, age – it does not matter. There is no reason why technology needs to be aligned with a particular gender. It is neutral, but a great lever in which to accelerate your reach, your ability, and power to connect with others.

I’m glad I stopped listening to the people who told me I couldn’t do anything, that I’d never amount to anything, that I was not worth bothering with.  I have met many people who have sadly been told something similar. Well, if no-one has said this to you yet, you can do anything. You are worth bothering with. You have the potential to change the world.

Like many people, trying to gain new skills makes my brain hurt and I will get stuck. But that just makes me more determined. I will ask for help. I will keep learning, I will find a community and contribute to it – or create one if it doesn’t exist yet. And at the same time I will keep giving talks and performances that hopefully inspire people despite the fact that a few still find it a novelty that I am female. Occasionally people tell me this in person.

Judging from all the advice I have been given, I never fitted in. I am not what society expects from a person. But that’s OK. When I wanted to fix my broken iPad, so many people told me it was impossible, and it wasn’t worth trying. But I kept trying. I failed the first time, but succeeded on my second attempt. I filmed the whole thing for the BBC at the same time. After I fixed it, many people contacted me to say they saw me do it and realised that they could do it too. Lots of people replaced their phone screens because they could see it was possible and felt confident enough to try it themselves.

So if after reading this one extra person aims to be a Phoenix, a community builder, a world-changer, a coder or even feels that today they can get out of bed and do the washing up –  if you can do something, one thing that you are proud of after reading this, then I shall celebrate International Women’s Day with you, and so will many others, regardless of how different we might be.

LJ Rich

Adapted from a talk given on International Women’s Day, March 6th 2018 to Sheffield Hallam University and Leeds University as part of an ACCAGlobal event.


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