Updated: Apr 25, 2022
One of my best friends recently recommended a book she thought Aunt Kristen (my favourite identity) might be interested in: What are little girls made of? by Jeanne Willis and Isabelle Follath.
She was right. Little did I know this book would make such a powerful impact on me. Here’s the front and back covers:
Sold, sold, sold. Boom! Ordered it for three of my nieces!
What ARE little girls made of?
What are little girls made of? Well if you listen to the old rhyme – girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, of course.
Willis and Follath give another interpretation: sun and rain and heart and brain - that's what girls are made of...And what are little boys made of? Except for little things, much the same - that's what little boys are made of.
It's as simple as that. This book is filled with rhymes and stories that remind girls they can aspire to be more than the love interest, the damsel in distress, the princess or the side character. They were strong and brave and creative and diverse and all the things anyone can be.
The girls/women in this book were not being kissed by Georgie Porgie (or Prince Charming for that matter). They were the doctors fixing Humpty Dumpty. They were Jill the mechanic, fixing her and Jack's scooter after it fell down the hill. And when Little Bo-Peep lost her sheep - she found and rescued them herself.
As I read this book, here are 3 work lessons that occured to me:
You are what you can see
Be aware of the immense power of normalisation
Be mindful of who's involved in conversations and how.
1 - You are what you can see
One of the first things you notice about this book was how diverse the characters were. Without drawing attention to this fact specifically, the characters represented a range of people. The fact that I noticed it also highlights that this representation of more people is still fairly new. It's still not yet automatic, it's different so I noticed it.
I haven't always identified with the female characters in the movies, stories and books I grew up reading. No surprises that I wasn't the delicate, soft spoken, damsel in distress type of kid. But at least they looked like me. It wasn't until I was much older that I recognised how much of a privilege that is.
(Just saw a powerful reminder of this in Rosetta L. Clay's LinkedIn post about finding band-aids that matched her skin tone for the first time. Again something I've never had to think twice about.)
When you think about your workplace:
Who works there?
Who has the power? (and who doesn't?)
What examples do your leaders set about appropriate behaviour?
What opportunities are you given to develop? Do you see a career path?
2 - The immense power of normalisation
This one may seem obvious, but what we normalise shapes our world. Jessica Brown, a BBC writer, wrote a great piece on the powerful force (good or ill) that normalisation plays on our lives, using examples of political, workplace and social normalisation all around us. Take a read here.
What's normalised is what's natural or normal in everyday life. What's normalised is cultural and time dependent. It's often what's regularly seen (point 1).
This book normalised diversity and people playing all sorts of roles in a great way. One way they did this is by having a diverse cast of characters but the characters didn't have to be their diversity. Them being there wasn't the lesson. They were just another character.
What do I mean by that? There were children in wheelchairs - but the story wasn't about them being in a wheelchair, they were just playing and building exactly like the other children. The doctor that could fix Humpty Dumpty was a black woman. But there was no mention of that fact, she was just was there - being an expert and healing her patient. It's was a great way to normalise the diversity we see around us.
It was refreshing to see young girl characters being the fun, adventurous, crafty, heroic, problem-solving, curious, brave and kind characters boys have been able to be for so long. It also means there's space for boys to do other things too - like bake and dance and - gulp - play dress up! And we got to see a dad staying at home while the mom goes to work.
The more we see it, the more we normalise it.
Our workplaces have their own cultures and norms.
What's normal at your work?
Why was the screaming, raving, bullying boss tolerated for so long?
Why was working 9-5, in an office, the main mode of office work, pre Covid?
Why are interviews geared towards extroversion and presentation skills when often the roles don't require either?
Our status quo bias can play out strongly once we have a norm. So a change to what's normal for you happens when you:
you put on your analytical System 2 thinking hat to question / challenge the norm OR
you don't have a choice and keeping the norm isn't an option.
Covid is a great example of the second. Pre-Covid office-based work happened for the most part, in the office. And now? Some people don't want to go back.
This shift illustrates how quickly what's normal can change. And how quickly innovations can become our expectations.
Psst - this is a quick moment to shout out Dinah's May Tea & Toast: Employee engagement for new ways of working. New ways of working bring new ways of engaging and connecting. Because this is our new normal, we'll have to learn how to work and lead in these new environments. Join us on 27 May to hear more!
Who makes the decisions?
Generational researcher Hadyn Shaw highlights that often the 'normal' practices and policies at work are not business necessities but instead reflect their generational preferences. He defines a business necessity as something required for: health and safety, to get funding, to make a profit and to keep customers. Everything else falls under preferences.
Policies implemented more reflect how the people making the rules prefer to work, meet, communicate, dress, make decisions, etc.
Who makes these decisions at your workplace? What's 'normal' or preferred by them? Does this work for everyone?
3 - Think about who's involved in conversations
When I read this book, I was like HELL YES! ALL MY LITTLE NIECES NEED TO READ THIS!
But what about my little nephews? Why did I assume or think this was just a girls book or conversation?
Don't worry - I ordered some for my nephews as well.
Because isn't the world better for everyone, when it's better for women/girls?
It sparks images of men at women's protests with signs like 'men of quality support women's equality.' If women only had to convince other women that there should be equality for women - the fight would've ended a long time ago.
If neurodiverse people only had to convince other neurodiverse people that the standard office environments didn't always work for them - change would've happened a long time ago.
Insert any group that's faces discrimination and the argument holds. For real change to happen we need to fight for solutions to problems that we might not ourselves face - both socially and in our workplaces.
This goes back to challenging our status quo - which starts to happen when we hear other people's stories and experiences.
Work lessons can come from anywhere. And it's extra fun when it comes in rhyming format.
Steps from here? Well, I recommend you buy this book for little ones in your life (and other books that re-enforce and normalise the right things).
But on a work level, think through what's seen, what's normal and who's included in your workplace.
And then test your answers with others - are they having the same experience as you?