Over the past 15 months (perhaps even a little more), I’ve had the opportunity to work in not only women-led but all-female teams. Whether this was an unconscious decision or a lucky coincidence is still unclear to me, but one thing is for sure: my life has changed.
This is not to say that my male coworkers have not taught me anything —I believe there is something to be learned from each and every human being we meet. What I mean is that in these very lucky 15 months I’ve noticed big changes in the way I relate to my coworkers, my deadlines, my challenges —overall, the notion I had of what work is supposed to look like has flipped entirely.
A year ago I joined the Global Communications team at Sistema.bio, a team comprised of brilliant women who every day give their best to something they truly believe in: changing lives through sustainability.
To commemorate International Women’s Day and all the female-led initiatives that come forth every March, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned through working with other women.
1. When women take part in the conversation, more women are considered
Each human is a universe. And we build our personal universes through the things we learn in our homes, our schools, our communities, the books we read, the movies we watch, the projects we take part in. That is why diversity matters: in each person’s contextual universe there are enormous untapped resources that have the potential to bring new, unthought-of ideas that help us reach people we’ve never even thought of. It is not enough to have one or two women at the table: we need rural, indigenous, urban, college-educated, and self-taught women speaking up. We need mothers, backpackers, feminists, bakers, activists, artists sharing their stories and those of the women in their lives. Because how could I, a college-educated, middle-class Mexican woman in my 20s know what a 45-year-old female farmer in Kiambu wants or needs?
As long as the conversation remains uniform, we will never see beyond privilege. We will never see what else is out there, what more needs to be done. When working on social inequalities, it is especially important for companies like Sistema.bio to add more chairs to the table and invite more women from different backgrounds to the conversation. Because only then will we truly hear the voices of those we work for. Only then will our work be collaborative and impactful.
2. The more genders, the more strengths
We all have different skills, strengths and talents, no matter the gender —that we all know. However, when building a team, I believe it is important to consider that a lot of our skills, strengths and talents are gendered. In our current educational and social systems, men and women are raised differently. As a girl, I was taught to be sensitive, to consider other people’s needs, to find creative solutions to problems. But I never learned how to fix a car or a chair, I was never taught to stand up for myself or for what I believe in.
Of course, as we grow older, we learn these things on our own. But for each person that path is different. Some women may continue to learn all about caring for other people while others learn how to build an aircraft. Some men may refine their logical thinking, some may work hard at their creative process. And it is the combination of each person’s gendered upbringing and what they decide to do with it that creates that very special thing they bring to the table. In this year I have learned a lot about those special things, be it through Alex Eaton’s innovative methodologies, Jes Carey’s enthusiastic pedagogy, Veronica Cherono’s passionate activism, or Graham Day’s meticulous analyses. I have learned a lot from Angel García’s creative and sustainable problem-solving and Madrin Maina’s learning-based leadership style. But mostly I have learned from my direct team members, Sistema.bio’s women-led Global Communications team. Through Xunaxi Cruz I have learned about project management, organization, and diplomatic, strategic communication. From Montserrat Cortez I have learned about assertiveness, self-encouraged professional growth, and tactical, audience-based communication. Last but not least, from Brianda Suárez I have learned about critical thinking, ecofeminism, self-reliance and how to tell stories in a loving, respectful and dignified way, no matter who or what the subject is. And none of those essential things would be at the Sistema.bio table without its wide, diverse, gender-inclusive team.
3. Empathy and compassion have a place in the workplace
This life-changing lesson is never-ending, and it has too many ramifications to mention in a single article. But there are two very important ones that I would like to explore here.
The first one relates to the workplace as a direct driver of quality of life. Depending on where we live and what we do, the average person spends around 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime. The lucky ones will spend less, and the unlucky —or, more accurately, the less privileged— ones will spend much more. Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: if we spend a third of our lives working, our workplaces have a direct impact on our wellbeing.
The two amazing female-led teams I’ve worked with over the past 15 months have brought many big changes for me, but the one I most appreciate is how much better my life and my mental health are now. And it is no coincidence: my life and mental health have improved because my life and mental health are now thought of and considered.
At our current pace, we are meant to place productivity at the top of our priorities. Anything from which we derive pleasure, joy or wholeness is meant to be on the sidelines, meant to be an accessory to our work: self-care is only important as long as it enhances our productivity. On paper, this works out fine. But in reality, here on earth, it certainly doesn’t.
That being said, some of us are lucky —(privileged)— enough to derive joy and wholeness from our work. And yet even us, the ones who love and believe in what we do, end up burned out, exhausted and stress-consumed. Why? Because human experience is always multi-layered. We are editors, farmers, community managers, designers, but we are also mothers, daughters, aunts, humans. We also have loves and grieves and dreams and pets and dishes to wash. And that is exactly where empathy and compassion in the workplace come in: looking at the humanity of the people you work with before looking at their productivity. I cherish my team because our priority is always just that: our humanity —especially in these difficult times. Be it the loss of a loved one (human or animal), a disrupted sleep schedule or simply the need for time off to take care of ourselves, we know we can count on each other. The well-being of the human in front of me will always go above anything else.
The second aspect I want to touch on, if only briefly, is the fact that nothing we do can have an impact unless we are empathetic with the people, places or things we are working for. Especially when it comes to social and environmental justice, no strategy will be fruitful unless we consider not only where the problems come from, but also what implications they have in other people’s lives, other people’s humanities. Sharon Salzberg, another astonishing and eye-opening 2020 teacher, defines compassion as love which recognizes suffering or adversity. Perhaps empathy as a work tool is a motivation that recognizes humanity and kinship. We work for others because we are others. Because rights should not be privileges, and my life will not be whole until yours is, too.
As I close this article, I notice that once again I’ve ended up writing a lot more than I planned for. But that’s just what happens when you write about something you believe in: that warm feeling, that guiding light inside you becomes alive and clear. It becomes an open road.
I believe in women. As ambitious and as reductionist as that may sound. In my everyday feminism, I try to steer away from narratives that portray women as magic, mystical creatures that are built to overcome all obstacles. As Sistema.bio’s copywriter I’ve had the opportunity to listen, read and write about Latin-American, African and Asian female farmers. And with each of their stories, letting go of this “female superhero” narrative has been harder and harder. Thankfully, I’m not alone: walking by my side are brilliant, creative, professional and complex women that each day remind me what women really are: human. Hard-working, awe-inspiring, myth-busting, odd-challenging, but still human. We fight, we break, we love, we believe, we work. And now that we’re together, there’s no telling what we’ll accomplish.