Last week, GCHQ appointed Anne Keast-Butler as their next director.
She happens to be the first female director in the 104-year history of the service – a fact which has been widely reported and leaned upon by the media.
It led me to think about these ‘firsts’ and whether we should continue to celebrate them.
I can see the merit in applauding progress and acknowledging the accomplishments of individuals who have broken barriers and shattered stereotypes. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that these celebrations come at a cost.
For starters, celebrating ‘firsts’ often involves diminishing the individual’s identity and reducing them to a symbol of their marginalised group.
It’s not uncommon to see headlines like “First Woman CEO Appointed at XYZ Company” or “First Black Senator Elected to Congress”, which usually omit their name. When the news is presented that way, the accomplishment is reduced to their identity characteristics.
By doing so, we’re ignoring the individual’s unique story, experiences, and achievements that helped them reach their position.
Celebrating ‘firsts’ can create a false sense of progress
Yes, it’s great to see more women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups breaking into traditionally male-dominated fields and positions of power. But let’s not forget that these milestones are often just the tip of the iceberg.
There is a long way to go in terms of achieving true equality and celebrating ‘firsts’ should be seen as the beginning, rather than the end.
That being said, I do see value in celebrating them. It can serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for others who may be facing similar obstacles. It can also bring attention to the need for change and spark important conversations about diversity and inclusion.
Take the 30% Club, which aimed to achieve gender balance on corporate boards by having at least 30% of board seats held by women. The club celebrated each new company that reached this milestone, which helped to drive progress and encourage other companies to follow suit.
It has been especially rewarding as an executive coach to have watched women who have shattered the glass ceiling help other women around them. It has been proven to be difficult for women to reach the top on their own. Now that they have, many are realising that even if they were the ‘first’ they can’t be the ‘last’.
So, where do I stand on the issue?
Ultimately, I think it comes down to how we celebrate ‘firsts’. If we focus solely on the individual’s identity and ignore their unique achievements, then we’re doing a disservice to both them and the broader movement for equality.
A word of caution, though. Let’s recognise the systemic barriers that still exist and the work that still needs to be done, while also acknowledging the accomplishments of individuals.
We must use these milestones as a way to spark important conversations and drive progress towards a more inclusive society. Only then can celebrating ‘firsts’ be a positive thing.
Thought for the week:
It costs nothing for a candle to light another candle.
Tips for being an A player:
- Your attitude is your altitude
- Everyone can be a role model
- You’re only as powerful as you think you can be
- When you help someone you both grow
- Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right – Henry Ford