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Can we really learn from the stories of others?

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’ ~ Maya Angelou

From cave drawings to weekly podcasts, stories have taken many different forms over humanity’s existence in the universe. Storytelling is a crucial act of communication that can have multiple purposes; entertainment, education, and sharing experiences, values and culture. Stories have the power to change the minds and hearts of millions. Whilst I could spend the next 600 or so words discussing the importance of stories, I think the bigger question comes from asking whether we can learn from each other’s stories and should we change our individual paths because of them? Is it truly important in the 2020’s that we listen to our family, friends, co-workers or even influential figures' stories from 20 years ago when the political, economic, social, and environmental climates have changed so drastically between now and then?

Personally, I believe there’s something truly captivating, inspiring and even nostalgic about listening to the stories of others - I find it almost impossible to not be affected by it. I have had the pleasure and fortune of listening to many fascinating people within my relatively short life so far, but when asking people to come forward to tell the history that defined their own lives... That’s when I really started to see the lessons that could be learnt from others. Whilst the mass media gives a platform for famous stories from incredible individuals like Dorothy Vaughan, Bobby Seale, Malala Yousafzai, which do have a profound impact on society, I want to focus on the people we see and speak to every day. The people we know more intimately.

In GLOW’s Women in Work study, I got the joy of interviewing Kate who told me about her first job where a director pulled her aside from a client meeting to say ‘oh you know Kate, our clients expect to see women wearing skirts when they’re doing that sort of formal meeting’. She reflects on how she worried about where she was going to get more money for skirts rather than realising how unacceptable the director’s comment was. Had it not been for her manager overhearing the discriminatory comments, she may not have got the apology she deserved.

Whilst reflecting on her experience, Kate believes we do have to question what others say even if you’re supposed to be learning from them, and it’s important to feel able to raise your concerns with someone who can help. I took from her story that sometimes raising your concerns and seeking help can lead to the best outcome rather than directly tackling the issue alone. Obviously that won’t always be the case, but having the support from others is crucial, even in today’s society.

Kate, however, is not alone. Mahta told her story, in the Women in Work Study, from when she was pushed back on getting a promotion into an ideal role, which would have allowed her to travel more, because she was a woman with a young child. Despite her pushing back on this, her manager did not back down and simply stated that he wouldn’t wish that on his own wife and having that time away from the children. Whilst there were multiple other incidents during her employment that culminated in her asking for a formal consultation, she did not foresee being fired by her employer. She could have backed down and accepted her loss, but she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong… So despite having no job, no money coming in, and her family to consider, she went to a tribunal to do what was right. From this inspiring story, I certainly learned the importance of believing in and standing up for yourself even when things are difficult and scary. Mahta’s ex-employer ended up settling out of court, and whilst it was a small amount, it was a victory for her. We can also learn from this story that sometimes we need to plan for the most unlikely of scenarios and it’s important to think about the possibility of things going wrong. Mahta even said herself that it taught her a lot about how to better navigate those situations for the future.

Whilst looking at others stories, we can also learn from our own. A personal one that stands out to me is that someone close to me told me that ‘I could not be a leader because I was short and a woman’. To this day if I mentioned this memory, they most likely wouldn’t remember saying it, however it is a moment that has stayed with me well into my adult life. I refused to believe this then, and I refuse to believe this now. After multiple endeavours, lessons learned, and mistakes made, I have led many teams and people. I have nurtured them. I have let them down. I have made them laugh and learn. I have made them sad. I have given them everything I possibly could and provided them with experiences that helped them with their future. Even now I have a fantastic team of volunteers in GLOW who have helped make it possible to write this today, but more importantly I proved that person who told me I could not be a leader wrong. Perhaps, therefore, the most impactful story I ever heard, was my own

If you’d like to read Kate and Mahta’s stories in full, go check out the Women in Work study here

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