This year I treated myself to a ticket to the Women of the World Festival in London. This annual event has been running since 2010 when the first festival took place at the Southbank Centre in London. Since then, WOW Festivals celebrating women and girls, and taking a frank look at the obstacles they face, have taken place across the globe. The WOW Foundation, the charity set up to further the festival’s potential, continues to drive the movement.
It was my first time at a WOW event and it was by turns a joyful, inspiring and moving experience. There were so many amazing speakers and sessions, it was hard to choose which ones to attend. I made a conscious decision not to over-think my choices and made my peace with the fact that I couldn’t see everything. What I did see was inspiration enough.
My over-riding feeling from beginning to end of the day was the sense of so many people, mostly but not all women, coming together with shared purpose and energy. At lunch time I sat with 3 ladies I had never met before, chatting and laughing and feeling a connection through this shared experience.
So what did I get involved in?
- I went to keynote presentations
- I took part in a drawing session
- I listened to panel discussions and ‘fireside chats’
- I watched a joyous and chaotic ‘join in’ dance session.
I heard about the way that women are treated and treat each other in contexts from politics to work, from beauty to the creative arts, from friendships to communities.
I laughed and I cried and I laughed some more.
As is my way, I noticed themes coming through so much of what I heard and participated in during the day. Reflecting on the experience on the train home, I identified 5 key points that I share with you now.
In the words of Jude Kelly, founder of the WOW festival, during the opening discussion of the day, we need “power done well”. In other words, we don’t need simply to follow a pre-set patriarchal model of what it means to hold power in the world.
We do all – individually and collectively – have the power to change things, probably more than we realise. But we need to look for ways to use that power for the collective good and not simply to advance ourselves above others. This is not an easy ask, but if we are conscious first of the power that we have and then of how we choose to use that power, we can actively make a choice to create better systems.
Shine a light
We can understand more about what women are facing, by amplifying the stories of what is going on in our worlds. There are both good and bad things that impact our experiences as women. From the positives of genuine empathy, friendship and sisterhood, to the continuing negative statistics in areas such as sexual violence and workplace discrimination, it is only by shining a light that we can understand what is happening.
By hiding away and not using our voices to speak up and out about our stories, we remove opportunities for change to happen.
You may think it is inevitable that this would end up on my list of key points! But I don’t think I am the only person who was there that day who noticed the power of communication. To share women’s stories and experiences, as I’ve mentioned already. And also to really listen to those who were speaking up and using their voice, or using their voices to speak up on behalf of those who aren’t able to do so for themselves. It is vital that we listen and hear what women are actually saying, not what we assume they mean.
Of course, this isn’t just a point for women. I often find myself talking about this with friends, colleagues and clients. It is a central part of inclusive communication. In this context, it would be easy to fall into the idea that my experience as a woman is the same as another woman’s, but there are so many ways in which that may not be true.
There is another way for us all to live and work together. The old systems and models, patriarchy, capitalism, constant grasping for self, are increasingly showing up as no longer fit for purpose (if indeed they ever actually were). And we are getting more and more vocal about wanting a new way of living and organising ourselves.
If those of us that were at the WOW festival want another way, so do so many more people who weren’t there that day, women and men alike. That is a powerful force for change.
Find your place
Working together does not have to mean we all need to do the same thing. There is strength in our breadth. Julia Gillard, former PM of Australia, used the example that in the movement for women’s right to vote there were women who took direct, sometimes violent action and there were women who sat down and had quiet, persuasive conversations with men. All had their part to play, all contributed to the ultimate success of that movement.
Find your place and the style of bringing about change that works for you. By banding together in different roles, we are greater than the sum of our parts.