Let’s Make Sure We Celebrate Women All Year Long
This is the time of year that CAMP Rehoboth shines a big spotlight on women in the LGBTQ community and those who support them during Women’s FEST. This would have been the 21st year of what has become the largest women’s event in the mid-Atlantic.
What many people may not know is that this now-annual event started at the turn of the millennium as a half-day event in April 2001. Known then as the Women’s Conference, it hosted speakers addressing topics such as health, financial planning, and legal protection for lesbian couples banned from legal marriages. The morning conference, upstairs at the Rehoboth Library, was a sell-out at 75 women.
In 2019, the event now known as Women’s FEST had grown to four days of programming, attracting more than 2,000 women to downtown Rehoboth featuring celebrity comics and musicians, a welcome dance party, a giant tea dance, golf outing, pickleball and cornhole tourneys, book signings by well-known authors, an art show, and well-known guest speakers.
While the pandemic has interrupted the planned event again this year, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a speech made in commemoration of the recently celebrated International Women’s Day. This is my way of bringing attention to not only the contributions women make in the world around us every day but also to the barriers to full inclusion that still remain.
I was fortunate to attend an event hosted by my former employer, Accenture, where actress Viola Davis was the keynote speaker. As they say, “she had me at hello.” Her ability to bring characters to life and show us their true humanity is what made me a huge fan. But it is her honest and passionate outspokenness about the unequal opportunities and compensation for women of color in Hollywood that matters most to me.
During a conversation with Tina Brown in 2018 as part of the Women in the World Summit, Davis said, “we get paid probably a tenth of what a Caucasian woman gets.” She spoke about how she has to constantly get on the phone and fight for not only the opportunity to play a role but to get compensated at the same level as actors of similar caliber like Meryl Steep and Julianne Moore.
Davis recognizes her celebrity offers her a unique platform from which she can use her star power to draw attention to both the gender and racial equity gap that women face in the workplace. What I admire about her is that Davis understands that she also has an obligation to pay it forward and say the things so many other women are unable to, for fear of paying the proverbial price in the form of being denied a job, a promotion, or just the opportunity.
She ended her Accenture emarks by offering this advice to the women in the audience about the impact they can have with those around them: “It is not what you leave for people, it is what you leave in them.” Davis lives by example and uses her voice in an intentional way to inspire, advocate, and educate those who will listen about what is possible when you take action.
Of course, I realize that not everyone is in a position of strength like Viola Davis. But my point is that each of us can use our voice every day to speak on behalf of those who cannot. There are countless situations when because of our unique privilege in that moment, others will listen to what we have to say. More importantly, it may be because of who we are that we can be a champion for others who need it most.
As a diversity and inclusion consultant who happens to also be a white gay man, I engage with senior leaders on a regular basis who are seeking my advice on how to create more equitable workplaces. I have learned that when I am meeting with a white executive, they are more receptive to hearing honest feedback about how their approach may make people who are different from them, including women and people of color, feel not valued or excluded.
One thing I have learned over the years is that the messenger makes a difference on whether the message is communicated and “heard.” I also believe that people like me have a responsibility to those who are marginalized to use our earned capital to effect change. This can happen when we see someone verbally attack a store clerk, or call out a co-worker when they make an insensitive comment to another colleague.
The next time you confront injustice, ask yourself, “What would Viola Davis do?” Those are the performances I cannot wait to hear about.
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.