I got back from Fiji last night, and an experience I will never forget.
I learned something about tribes, and I learned something about women. And I guess I learned a little something about myself.
Thought I’d share.
About a year ago my speaking agent asked me if I wanted to do a talk in Fiji for an organisation called Business Chicks. Yes, I have a speaking agent. Yes, I find the whole idea a bit weird.
Nonetheless – I said yes (naturally) and then promptly forgot about it, until about two months ago, when the idea of escaping the death knell of Melbourne winter became understandably appealing.
I started asking around about Business Chicks, to discover that not only were they quite widely known, but they seemed to be widely well-regarded. I jumped online and did a bit of research. Bought a book the founder, Emma Isaacs, wrote, called Winging It. I was drawn in by her candour, and impressed with her hustle.
Now normally in the lead-up to a speaking gig, two things happen for me. One – the conference organisers attempt to tick off potential sources of anxiety. Could I send my presentation, 16×9 format? Are there any videos embedded? Could I send through my flight details. And two – the clients who’ve booked me want to tell me all about their companies, their audience, and what they want from the conference, so I can tailor my talk to help them drive home their message.
But I got none of that in this particular lead-up.
I got a series of emails from Business Chicks, bursting with excitement about the upcoming event, and a link to a form with a bunch of questions about me. Good questions – what am I excited about right now? What am I really good at? Could I share a “pinch-me” moment?
The same questions that everyone going was being asked, as it turned out. I didn’t get treated as a speaker, I got treated as a member. That was a good start, and together with the book and the unpaid endorsements from people I knew and respected, I started getting a little more excited about the event.
And a little more nervous.
I saw the speaker line-up. Impressive women, all.
When I arrived, on the table in my villa was a beautifully printed and bound book with photos and anecdotes from each of the speakers and attendees. Page after page I flipped, wondering… okay. All women.
Someone I am lucky to know named Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty, is a bit of a champion of balancing the gender representation of speakers at conferences and on panels. She’s helped me get better at asking the question before accepting a gig, or even better, taking the gig, and then asking the question on social media.
You’ll perhaps be unsurprised by how many organisers “haven’t yet finalised the speaker lineup”, and how quickly three women are slipped last minute into said lineup, when you ask the question on facebook and twitter, rather than email.
And so it was with a wry grin that I accepted the fact that I was indisputably and irrevocably the token male at this conference.
I went to the welcome drinks, and do you know what struck me immediately? This wasn’t like any conference audience I’d ever seen. This was a fucking tribe. There was energy in the air, under the steamy, stormy Fiji skies.
Know what I was mostly feeling? Like I was intruding.
I remember I went up to the bar to get champagne for my table, in an effort that reeked of desperation to be useful, and the Fijian barman, one of the only other men in sight, leant over to me and whispered “so you the only man here, huh?” with a smirk that was part sympathy, part envy, and a whole lot of bewilderment.
And I couldn’t help but think that these one hundred and twenty women had come together to be free and vulnerable and inspired and empowered and you know what? Day one? Token man – you can fuck off, thank you. Day three maybe – come back to us, we may be up for a little male company, but for now, this is our time. Good bye.
Of course, I wasn’t made to feel unwelcome. In fact, I was welcomed very warmly. But I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding. Like I didn’t belong.
I know it sounds okay on the surface, perhaps if you’re a man reading, to be the only male at a conference full of driven, creative, connected women, and that had occurred to me, but in reality it was a little intimidating.
But you know what happened? I came to realise, through the energy and hospitality of these people, that this wasn’t a tribe of women after all.
This was a tribe of people, united by a fire in each of their bellies that drove them to make something, to build something, to create something they were passionate about. Something on and of and with purpose.
And with that, I connected. That was me too. We shared that.
And maybe it was the champagne, maybe it was the balmy air or the Pacific constellations or the intoxicating array of colours and shapes and fabrics at once foreign and fascinating, but I didn’t feel like I was intruding any more.
I felt like I belonged.
Know what else I noticed? There was none of the usual posturing and positioning you get when a group of strangers come together at a conference. None of the forced networking. Sure, there were those natural extroverted connectors who were bringing people in, and those introverts grateful for the invitations, but it was all happening with smiles and hugs and simple humanness, and what genuinely felt like giving, not taking.
The stakes rose as the day of my talk approached. I didn’t want to let these people down. They had welcomed me. Had transformed me, in a way.
I told my story, I shared my failures, my mistakes, my fears, and my learnings. I shared my belief that ultimately, it all came down to what we stood for, to unite our tribes.
Someone came up to me afterwards and told me with fervent eyes that they had come to the conference resigned to quit their business and get a job, but during the one hour and five minutes of my story, they had changed their mind.
Another woman came up to me in tears, sobbing “it’s me! They’re not my daughter’s issues, they’re mine. My fears! I worry so that she doesn’t have a solid career, she tries this, and tries that, and I think she’s unhappy, but she’s not! It’s just my worry. Oh, I have to tell her that I understand, that I’m so proud of her…”
The MC – a Jersey-born and twanged inspiration named Karen James (who I want very much to be my friend and mentor) hugged me onstage through choked-back tears and confessed the crippling anxiety she had felt these past four months over an impending and life-changing decision.
She afterward put up a slide of a clownfish and explained how as schools living within their anemones, a female always ruled, and if the Queen died, the next dominant male would somehow manifest a sex change and take her place.
Challenge accepted, I turned up to the final night’s celebrations, fancy-dress themed around the letter “F”, as a Female.
It was funny, but also, and I just giggled a little as I wrote this – it was kind of like the final rite of my inclusion with this extraordinary group of people.
We danced, Farmgirl and Fairy and Flower Child and Frida and I, and we jumped in the pool in dresses and undies, and there was no Fear of sexualisation, only Freedom.
We hugged, and I was taught by not half bad surfer Layne Beachley the humble healing art of not “giving” a hug, but sharing one.
I came to understand that this culture was the manifestation of the true and open soul of Emma, the Business Chicks founder, dressed that night as Fiona from Shrek.
So comfortable did I become, that near the end of the night I found myself, soaking wet and half naked, getting drinks from the bar, having spared the Zimmerman dress I had borrowed from getting ruined.
I got another taste of life as a woman then, as a particularly merry patron smacked my bum and tried to pull down my pants, and got a bit belligerent when I asked her to stop.
My first thought was “it’s okay, it’s late, and let’s face it, I am standing at a bar in wet undies.” The implications of so normalising the situation aren’t lost on me, in these momentous and encouraging times of movement toward equality.
I didn’t feel particularly threatened in the moment, just mildly irritated. But I’m guessing that if I had to go through that every Saturday night for the next twenty years, it would get tiresome at best, traumatic more likely.
I share this incident with you not to shame anyone – god no, it was very not in keeping with the experience I had with this phenomenal tribe of women, one and all. Indeed, I strongly considered not including it at all.
But it was significant to my experience that night, my night as a woman. And oddly, contributed to my sense of connectedness.
What an extraordinary weekend!
I learned, or relearned, that inclusion can and should ignore the surface “likenesses”, be they gender or race or whatever. Inclusion, belonging – it’s about shared values, human experiences.
I had a wonderful, emotional, connected and transformative time, the only man in a tribe of women.
Thank you, Business Chicks, and the people of Fiji who looked after us. May I, through this agency, attempt to help unite tribes so connected and true.