It took a while to find my three Nous colleagues, Tony, Kelly, Deanne, and our guests, on the packed deck of Sydney’s Jones Bay Wharf last Tuesday week.
With a keen eye for D&I, we were here for the annual DCA stoush between two panels debating whether it’s really OK to bring your whole self to work.
Polled before it began, 57% of the audience were on the side of the affirmative. We knew the research. When people feel safe to be themselves at work they’re more connected, more engaged and more productive!
10%, however, reconsidered after hearing the arguments for the negative. Especially those posited by the energetic, effusive, excoriating Effie, aka Mary Coustas, who told us it was not possible, desirable or even necessary.
The panels were a gender balanced, diverse mix of celebrities and business people – as you’d expect at a DCA gig.
Speaking for the affirmative were:
Lorraine Murphy, Chief People Office NAB, a passionate supporter of women and member of the International Women’s Foundation.
Lawrence Leung, Asian-Australian comedian, Offspring’s Dr Elvis and an award winning comedian, screenwriter and speaker.
Karen Mundine, a Redfern gal, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, instrumental in some watershed events including the Apology to the Stolen Generations and the Australian Reconciliation Convention.
On the side of the negative were:
Jack Heath, CEO of Sane Australia, a man with personal experience, committed to improving the lives of Australians with mental illness.
Mary Coustas, writer, performer, comedian, Greek Goddess, and author, ironically, of ‘Effie’s Guide to Being Yourself.’
Alan Kirkland, Choice CEO, lawyer and advocate for civil society and welfare rights.
Tony Jones moderated as much as he provoked. He was, he told us, impartial, waiting to be convinced. But he had done his research and quoted Sheryl Sanders leaning in to the side of the affirmative before castigating her for apparently behaving badly in the board room. Her behaviour, like his, could be described, he said as ‘two sides of the same coin…’ Indeed.
Meals were served, cutlery tinkled and the debate was on.
Both sides entertained as much as they persuaded. Grateful as I was for the laughs, there were, too, many sombre moments of reflection.
Alternating with their negative opponents, each arguing the affirmative asked us in their own Kath-like way to ‘look at me, look at me! I am brilliant! I am brave! I am tired of trying to be someone else… so to work I go, all me.’
Lorraine began, larger than life, colourful and completely herself. It was too hard, she said, to make sense of the contradictory messages to ‘tone down,’ ‘be more direct,’ ‘be less bossy’ … most women know the drill… so she figured the best course of action was to be ‘loud, proud and me!’
Next defending the ideal was Lawrence, Dr Elvis, who pointed out he was Asian with impressive facial hair, claiming his place alongside us Anglos. He was proof it was possible to parlay with the privileged and make fun of what they/we don’t want to fess up to – our internalised racism: ‘I’m yellow, I’m successful and I’m here!’ he told us.
Finally shouting yes, was Karen Mundine, a proud Bundjalang woman who whipped off her jacket to reveal her Superwoman suit. Was it required, I wondered, to fight, defend or ward off attack?
Being fully themselves at work, it seemed, was hard. It came with effort and energy and was the final stand after the confused, contradictory and discriminatory messages to fit in and be like us became too hard. Courageously each of the three yes voters found a way to show up, larger than life, and defend their decision to do it.
For the negative, were the two blokes bookending Effie. It was she who won us over. With jokes landing like cupid’s arrow, she hit the hearts and changed the minds of at least 10% of the audience. It was hard to tell whether we should laugh or cry as we gasped at her audacious claims and boldness.
Before her, though, was Jack. A man who’d suffered a mental illness and identified with keen sensitivity the stigma, stereotypes and stonewalling against anyone presenting with anything as scary as a mental illness, especially schizophrenia. It was sobering and shaming to hear him recount the fear of an employee following yet another murder in Bourke St by a ‘psycho Schizo.’ An employee who suffered from the same condition and with each media report became more despairing. Like any stereotyped group, the actions of some become the behaviour of all. Why would anyone want to disclose their condition?
Then it was Effie’s turn. She didn’t have to tell anyone how fabulous she was, she said. It was obvious! Anyone could see she was a wog with wonderful hair and great beauty. There was no need for her to flaunt it! ‘And as for your personal dramas,’ she added, ‘your workmates don’t want to hear about those, they don’t care! They’ve got their own to deal with! So leave them at home or find a therapist – who, unlike your colleagues, will keep your secrets safe!’
Finally, up stood Alan from Choice. Fed up and angry, or so it seemed, he resorted to a couple of personal and targeted attacks on his opponents, especially Lorraine from NAB, wondering how she could sleep at night after the banking commission? He was gay, with children, and described the tedious, homophobic and intrusive questions that came when he and his partner announced they were with child. Tiresome, I’m sure, but how awkward we can be when attempting to be kind. I wondered if he may be a little more forgiving. But how could I know?
All of it left me feeling sad. On one side were those who’d fought to be them selves at work – but it seemed to an exaggerated, lopsided almost-self they brought. On the other were those who pragmatically, or if you were Effie, exuberantly, measured how much they meted out at work, while simultaneously advocating on behalf of those less able.
All revealed the defensive strategies required to live in a world that divides them from us. Still. A world where the different, less healthy, less white, less male, less Anglo, need to fight, flee or freeze to survive. Who show us a shimmering shellacked self to distract, distort and conceal the ideal real.
These six have found what works for them. There are those, though, who’ve given up, who’ve learned it’s risky and hurts to be real and rejected.
Hooray for advocates like all those on the panel who speak up on behalf of the vulnerable. Time we all ripped open and revealed our superhero selves to stand loud, proud and next to those who’ve needed to wear them for too long.
Let’s stand side by side and make it OK for all of us to bring our whole selves to work.
For those who’ve not yet heard, I’ve joined Nous and am loving it! This site will still be the repository of my blogs but the branding will be changed over time.