Conventional wisdom tells us that children learn from the good example of their parents. But something went haywire when my mother misbehaved in the office of the Prime Minister. She defied the leadership of the Jamaica Civil Service Association by raising a topic that was not on the agenda in a meeting with the Prime Minister. In less than 10 minutes, my mother secured an important policy change that gave women in management positions in the public service the same benefits as their male colleagues.
It was 1976, the first year of the United Nations’ Decade for Women. The Government of Jamaica was committed to implementing gender equity policies. Ironically, only male public service managers with over 10 years’ service could benefit from the payment of 50% of family vacation travel costs. There was no justification for this discriminatory benefit.
The male-dominated executive of the association struck down every attempt my mother made to have the assisted vacation benefit extended to women. These men also refused to have the elimination of gender-based discrimination listed among the Jamaica Civil Service Association’s priorities for change. When the courtesy call visit to the Prime Minister was being planned, my mother was told that it was not the proper forum in which to raise “these controversial topics.”
Not one to burn bras or launch a public campaign against men, my mother chose to use her position of leadership to influence and create change by ‘properly’ misbehaving. This meant taking the risk of crossing the line of political correctness in the highest office of political power.
Three things I learned
- Don’t ask for forgiveness
Political correctness is the biggest hurdle to progress. Being disruptive doesn’t always have to take the form of raucous demonstrations in the streets. My mother’s way of fighting for the cause was to secure a seat at the table, by getting elected and getting involved. Going off-topic in the board room is a very valid and powerful tactic to militate for change. My mother chose to break the rules of protocol. She made no apology for doing so. I learned from her, to never ask permission or apologize for doing the right thing.
- Know who holds the power
There is strength in numbers, that’s why enlisting the support of influencers is important. However, in order to win, you always need to know who holds the power to make change happen.
The Executive Committee’s mandate was to make representations to leaders in government on behalf of public service employees. My mother was not discouraged by the unwillingness of the male-dominated executive to advocate for gender equality. She knew that it was the political directorate that held the power to make changes in policy. Her ultimate goal was to get the Prime Minister’s attention and incite him to take action.
- What’s in it for them matters too
My mother presented the issue of employee benefits as a blind spot in the government’s policy of gender equality that could no longer be overlooked. The Prime Minister understood from her intervention that changing the rules was the right thing to do, particularly at a time when the issue of women’s rights was high on the public agenda. Removing gender-based discrimination in the public service would reinforce his commitment to women’s rights and earn for his government, greater credibility both locally and internationally.
The BIG picture
All of this happened over 40 years ago. Although assisted payment of vacation travel is no longer a benefit in the public service, my mother’s commitment to the cause of gender equality continues to be part of her legacy. She didn’t just take personal pride in fulfilling her professional ambition or sit on her hard-earned status of being among the first women in public service management. She saw the big picture and decided to fight for a better and just world, so that many other women and men would have equal access to opportunities to achieve their ambitions and enjoy the benefits of their service.
The most valuable lesson I learned from my mother is that women should never be reticent about pursuing their ambitions or shy away from dissenting voices. Aspiring to positions of leadership is one of the best ways to fight for a cause and create meaningful change. Effective leadership requires the courage to take risks, even if it means you may have to ‘properly’ misbehave. The outcome may surprise you.
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.