As of next week, I’ll be flying to Baltimore, MD (home of the grave of a certain Mr. Poe!) for a work trip to attend the largest LGBT corporate conference in North America. Close to 3,000 LGBTAs will be in attendance, and I, a little Winnipeg Administrative Assistant, was somehow chosen as one of fifteen colleagues from across the world to go. This wasn’t without its challenges – Administrative Assistants don’t usually get to travel, aren’t really supposed to take on extra-curriculars, and definitely don’t have corporate credit cards. When I was asked, the immediate response locally was a hesitant yes, on the condition that I did all prep work for it on my own time, and earned the hours in advance to cover the travel days. Nobody else had to do that. But because of the unusual circumstance of somebody at my level being offered this opportunity, I did. Which I reluctantly decided I was okay with – I wasn’t going to miss out on something this awesome just for the sake of having to work through lunch hours!
Something I’ve struggled with throughout my career are the limitations determined by job title. Possibly appearance, too, but I’ve talked about that before. I have a pattern of entering organizations at the administrative level – reception, admin assistant, etc. and quickly expanding the role as much as I can to reflect my actual capacity. I wasn’t given a brain to answer phones and file papers, and I’ve proven myself more than capable in writing/marketing/graphic design, social media, group facilitation, and all sorts of communications functions. At my last job, I initiated, designed and delivered entire curriculum for a series of workshops, gave corporate presentations to promote services, wrote radio/print ads, and managed two corporate videos from the ground up. Yet my title was not permitted to reflect how much more I brought to the role. I always suspected it was due to looking young, but now I’m experiencing it again, I’m certain it’s the case.
I’m 27 years old. I still get asked if I’m 18 and told how young I look. People joke that it’s a good thing – and I’m sure one day when I hit forty, it will be – but in the meantime, it’s a curse. People judge you based on what’s on the surface. They don’t take the time to read over your accomplishments or look at your work ethic. They don’t spend time investing in hearing your ideas or asking your opinion. They see someone who looks new to the workforce with an entry-level title. Someone inexperienced and therefore unworthy of being heard. I’ve come up with countless proposals, ideas and process improvements, I’ve expanded my network, I’ve initiated communications and social media strategies that have gone national. I’ve been asked to be part of a global steering committee for a corporate diversity network. Outside my office walls, I’m recognized and valued. But locally, I get the sense I need to stop thinking outside the box, get back in it, and stay there. Consequently, the flame on my desire to do more is waning. And how is that good for a company as a whole?
In addition to titles and physical appearance, I’m sure some of this is generational. I always have been one of the youngest members of the office, and it is hard to “teach old dogs new tricks”. But how do you get those tricks to be acknowledged when the very position you’re in is the obstacle? I’m struggling a little with this trip. I’m going as a corporate ambassador, to promote the company and how it encourages diversity, respect, and innovation. I am proud to work somewhere that supports these values – I just wish there was something I could do to help them become more of a priority. Still, I am incredibly excited (and nervous!) for this trip. I’m going to be meeting colleagues from across the world I’ve been getting to know and befriend over the last few months. I’m going to be surrounded by people who have the same values I do, who share the same passion for equality in the workplace. It’s going to be incredibly inspiring. But I’m nervous about how to get my learning heard when I return home. I have felt disheartened – but one of my US colleagues encouraged me recently to keep doing what I’m doing. Keep standing up for what’s right, doing everything I can to promote inclusion, diversity and equality. He reminded me that I may only reach one person – but that that in itself is one more person touched than had I given up. I’ve tried to take that message to heart and keep it there for when things get tough.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to look back and say I was defeated. I want to stand strong, though perhaps having taken a fair share of knocks, perhaps a little scarred, and perhaps slightly saddened by the discrepancy between how the world is and how it could be. But I want to be able to say I never gave up. I know my capabilities, and I refuse to be caged by others’ resistance to change and innovation. And I know my intentions are always to better things around me. It’s hard, sometimes, when your efforts are stifled and quelled, but I think that’s where personal accountability comes into play: it’s easy to become the product of other people’s expectations, and it’s alarmingly more so to believe something just because it’s continually reiterated – but you have to find your own truth, stand your ground, and remember the wise words of Albert Einstein:
Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.
I’ll update again soon – this summer/autumn have been incredibly eventful, and I have stories of tattoos, space parties, new kittens, love, ridiculous Halloween costumes, music, bookwriting and flesh-eating diseases to share, along with a post-conference update on how brilliant Out & Equal was. Oh, and why am I going to a giant LGBT conference anyway? No, to answer the colleague who asked my boss if I was “coming out”. I’m going because I’m proud to be an ally, and I want to do everything I can to change the corporate culture to one of equality, where people can feel comfortable, unafraid, and free to be their true selves.
Stay strong, stay real, and see you on the other side!
Edit: In a case of fantastic timing, I saw this article posted by a friend of mine today: When did Gen Y become Gen Y-Can’t-We-Take-You-Seriously? ”I hate that adage that youth is wasted on the young. It’s so defeatist, and it comes with a whiff of patronizing bitterness and jealousy. Usually, it’s uttered by people who are older, who somehow resent the young – the beauty and possibility they possess, and the fresh intelligence that threatens those in positions of authority.” It seems I’m not alone after all.