To mark International Women's Day, we hosted a candid chat with women at SecondMuse who advance gender equity through different programs — GET Cities, The Incubation Network, and SecondMuse Capital.
In honor of International Women’s Day, three women from SecondMuse participated in a candid conversation reflecting on their personal and professional journeys toward advancing gender equity. Dorian Spears, the Program Partnerships and Strategy Lead for GET Cities; Sandhya Dovedy, Program Manager of Network Development at The Incubation Network; and Natalia Arjomand, Director at SecondMuse Capital, currently work each day to shift narratives and root out biases that prevent women and girls from accessing the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Dorian, based in Chicago, does this through building partnerships with organizations that have similar missions and values to advance inclusive pathways for women in tech. Sandhya, based in Singapore, does this by working with governments, women’s rights organizations, and other groups to promote fair and equitable working practices in South and Southeast Asia’s informal waste management sector, which is dominated by women. And Natalia, based in Montreal, tackles this through efforts to engage historically marginalized communities, like girls of color in the United States, in designing financial mechanisms to benefit them.
Before becoming agents of change themselves, each of these women encountered their own obstacles that sharpened their views on gender-based disparities — from disparagement in male-dominated sports to dismissal in male-dominated boardrooms. But they also encountered mentors and role models along the way who helped them navigate challenges and instilled in them the conviction that biases can be broken.
Below, watch highlights from their discussion, or scroll down to read their full conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Tell us a moment or experience that spurred you to action
Dorian: My mother was in accounts payable at a Fortune 500 company based back home in Memphis, and there was a time when she had an evaluation and was given a 10-cent raise. And she felt that that was not fair and she talked to me about it…”This is the world I am in as a woman.” It honestly made me not want to work in corporate America. But knowing my gender could be an issue when I enter a space has prompted me to want to [advance change] in that space.
Natalia: Growing up as a member of the Baha’i faith, one of our key principles is the equality of men and women. I remember as a young child always going back to this analogy of thinking of humanity as having two wings — one is a woman and the other is a man. And there is a quote that says, “not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.” So hearing that from a very young age and having that instilled in me throughout my upbringing motivated me to work toward the goal of gender equity.
Sandhya: As a kid, badminton was my sport and I made it to the national level in Malaysia. When I was 8 years old,
I was the only girl participating in my first tournament with 50 other young boys, and I won that tournament. But no one applauded.
There was a sense across the auditorium of, how did she win? Did she cheat or did she get lucky? There were comments as well: Wow he got beat by a girl! There was certainly this strong focus on my gender. I remember going home and feeling so defeated, even after winning.
A key lesson you’ve learned
Dorian: Continue to be who you are. I think the way that comes about is being able to have as many role models as you can, as many mentors and people to wrap their arms around you as possible, especially in professional settings. Early in my career, I saw a woman who was petite in stature like I am, and she had to sit in a room with the finance department of another entity we were going to be in partnership with and tell them we were going to lose money — not continuously, but for the first year — and I saw the people in accounting and finance, who were all white men, turn red. But
I saw her stand her ground, sit there, be quiet, let the silence speak for itself. And through watching her, I chose particular traits I wanted to adopt as a leader.
It inspired me to hold fast and be really steady when having a difficult conversation. It has reminded me, over the years, that I can do hard things.
Natalia: Show up authentically. I started my career in Wall Street, traditionally a very male-dominated industry, and I remember specifically after having a very upsetting day with one of my colleagues, I was told that in order for me to succeed I needed to toughen up. I was visibly shaken, so it was really trying to say that the qualities of a female and being vulnerable in the workplace were not acceptable. I left my career, went back to grad school and started again, this time in a large consulting company. One of the partners of the firm told a group of women at a lunch that we would likely be the only females in the rooms with executives and that we should not to try to act like our male counterparts, but embrace who we are as women and to use that as an asset: Understand your own strengths and show up authentically. That really stuck with me.
Sandya: Be an ally. I started my career in a startup where I was pretty much the only woman. I was always expected to take notes and plan the office party because I was a woman — not because I enjoyed doing it. It was something I never questioned because it was early in my career and I didn’t know any better. But then I moved to the tech space and joined a company that was very intentional about gender roles and biases: so, taking turns to make sure different team members were planning office parties or picking the restaurant for the next offsite. There was so much allyship. Even if disagreements came up, no one was ever met with hostility.
We did a lot of training on allyship, speaking up when we saw things that were biased, and I realized you could have open conversations without being uncomfortable.
Work your team is doing to break biases
Dorian: The technology sector is dominated by white men in the U.S.. So for us, it’s about changing that narrative to reflect that women can be the norm and not the exception. It’s also speaking to the fact that the capabilities, talent and brilliance they add to the workplace are just as valuable as [what men bring to the workplace]. We work to increase the participation of women in technology, raise funds for women innovators, specifically on VC-side, where the numbers are very dismal for women. So, how do we make sure women can develop technology that addresses issues specific to women? I’m thinking about a mother-daughter team I’d read about last year who are developing technology aimed at helping women experiencing paramenapoause and menopause. So when we think about breaking biases in technology, there are so many opportunities for women to improve the lives of other women and for those who come behind us.
Natalia: Similar to tech, the finance world is still male-driven and this trickles down into how investments are structured and who is receiving funding. Only 2% of women have received VC funding if you look at stats from last year, and just .64% of Black women have received funding. So what we are doing specifically in the Future Economy Lab is that we are working with Grantmakers for Girls of Color, and trying to design a financial mechanism that is directly investing in girls of color to allow them to have more access to capital. We are also working with a group of fellows through the design period and our hope and goal is to share with them a lot of the knowledge around economic development and financial capital creation, so these things are not foreign to them. So
it’s really building the skills so the next generation is also able to enter into these spaces and showing them, this is something you can do too.
Sandhya: At The Incubation Network we want to make gender equity as practical as possible for entrepreneurs, incubators and entrepreneur support organizations, because they usually have really lean teams. They may be thinking: this is an important topic, but I don’t have the time, the resources to implement something that is inclusive. I don’t have the bandwidth to even think about hiring a lot of women. So it’s just about making sure they have the steps laid out for them. It’s not just about hiring women on your team. One of the other factors that the team considers is gender-based violence. This happens across South and Southeast Asia, statistics show. It’s about educating the entire community and shifting behaviors, which is unfortunately not as easy as giving them a checklist. But it’s about equipping the different partners we work with very tangible steps and also having those very open conversations and educating them. So it’s looking at various steps across the value chain in this complex ecosystem and trying our best to move the needle on this systematic issue.
Small changes, daily gestures and individual actions that can spur bigger change
Natalia: Giving us space to be human. I just thought about an instance when I was first coming back to work after having my first child. I was in a meeting with Carrie [Freeman], our co-CEO, and she could hear my baby was frustrated and crying and she said, “go ahead.” Just having that, coming from my boss at the time, telling me, “go tend to your child, I’m here, I can wait,” was a really important moment that made me feel like I can be a working mom. It was a simple thing she said on one phone call 6 years ago, but it clearly stuck with me.
Sandhya: That’s amazing Natalia. I’m pregnant now and in other work settings I might feel uncomfortable sharing that I don’t feel so well, I’m experiencing morning sickness and maybe I can’t show up to a meeting. But I have a team that is so supportive and has even given me a makeshift stool to keep my legs elevated. These small gestures go such a long way and make me feel like, yes I can still show up and thrive in this environment because I know I have a supportive team.
Dorian: In previous jobs there were moments when I felt like I just couldn’t take a day off, particularly environments dominated by men, who were such drivers in their work. But in my journey here at SecondMuse and the GET Cities initiative, and particularly with our director Leslie [Lynn Smith], she says, there is work to be done, but I want to make sure you take care of yourselves first. And she means that. I’m passionate about self care and being able to take a break and step back when the world gets to be too much, and she supports that. The work will get done. From my end, I do whatever I can do to support people when they are having a tough time at work. I might be the ear so they don’t have to hold it in, give them some pep talks — not to toughen up, but to be themselves.
It’s been a long journey from being in spaces where my presence was not welcome to being in a space where not only am I welcome, but I’m encouraged and enabled to be my best self.