Women in Business and Politics: Finding a Safe Space

May 20th, 2016

The room was packed. In the end, we were squeezing chairs into small spaces, and it grew rather warm. The occasion was a discussion on Promoting Women in Business and Politics: Pros and Cons, organized by the 51% Coalition and Women Business Owners, in Kingston.

WBO Invitation

Perhaps there more “cons” than “pros” arose during the conversation, which was part of an ongoing project by the 51% Coalition on Building a Women’s Constituency, funded by UN Women. Panelist and former Senator Imani Duncan-Price (why is she no longer a Senator, I ask?) spoke of the challenges of being in active politics while having two small babies – in particular, breast-feeding in the Parliamentary building (which is at the best of times the most non-user friendly building in Kingston). Former government minister Maxine Henry Wilson said bluntly: “Representational politics is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” and being a woman certainly didn’t help. With a touch of frustration, she wondered aloud “why Members of Parliament have not delivered more,” musing: “What will make politics a better space?” For men and women, one presumes.

Dr. Marcia Forbes (left) and Dr. Blossom O'Meally Nelson in deep discussion. (My photo)

Dr. Marcia Forbes (left) and Dr. Blossom O’Meally Nelson in deep discussion. (My photo)

Parliamentary intern Donavan Thompson provided some data, which some of us frowned over a little. The fact is that in the area of women’s leadership, data is hard to track down (as Mr. Thompson noted) and usually incomplete. The 51% Coalition is currently engaged in research, as part of the UN Women project, to unearth much more; it aims to publish this by the end of June. As the Coalition’s Judith Wedderburn put it, “We need to think more deeply, and there is a need for more honesty” – for example, as to how and why women are not socialized to support other women.

So what of the business owners? They talked less than the politicians (which should come as no surprise!) but some of the challenges (risk management, finding the right staff and so on) would be common to both men and women in business. Nevertheless, challenges there are.

“We need critical mass!” urged Duncan-Price. She used this phrase more than once.“This is so important for us to have a safe space.” Reading between the lines of much that was said, I realized that women in both spheres can often feel isolated. Sometimes, the support just isn’t there, because there are not enough of you. If you are a woman on the campaign trail, it’s much harder to raise funds. Whether this is generally true for women business owners I was not sure; the element of trust overrides everything in that sphere. Yet Lorna Green said she has always been asking herself: “How do we as women navigate this small space?” 

Lorna Green, who heads Women Business Owners, makes a point. (My photo)

Lorna Green, who heads Women Business Owners, makes a point. (My photo)

Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance and Planning Fayval Williams was thoughtful and deliberate. She went out and got a job after leaving high school, then went to live in the United States for quite a while. She has an MBA with concentration in Finance from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and a BA (cum laude) in Economics from Harvard University. She is responsible for fiscal policy in the Ministry (basically – the International Monetary Fund, IMF). I’m just noting this, because many will not know her background, as she’s very new to politics.

Ms. Williams told women to “stop feeling guilty” (oh, this is something that haunts many women!) adding: “We feel we are burden bearers for the family.” She was taught to believe that she could “walk into a room confidently, walk right to the front,” and sit down. She added dryly, “Those men at the PSOJ aren’t having this conversation!” 

Indeed, they are not. They are secure, happily networking as usual. Women need to network more, don’t they?

A note of steely determination crept into the dialogue. “You have to find your way,” said Minister Williams. “Once you start – you keep up,” said one business owner. No turning back. “We need to rise up! We have the capacity,” said Ms. Merline Daley of the Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus, a member group of the 51% Coalition.

I was trying to find parallels between the two worlds – business and politics. What are the shared experiences, good and bad? It was getting late, so perhaps I couldn’t get the answer I wanted. Ms. Daley asserted, “Whether in business or politics, they are rough times!” Coalition member Dr. Marcia Forbes nodded agreement: “It’s rough!” Someone else murmured: “The one thing women all face is discrimination.”

Not a comfortable note to end on; but as Dr. Blossom O’Meally Nelson noted, follow-up discussions are needed.

Perhaps I could suggest also that strategies and action plans might be drawn up. The “women’s constituency” has many components. I trust that the 51% Coalition’s current project will capture the key elements.

 

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