Choose to challenge on International Women's Day

By Jo Miller | 07 March 2021

This  International Women’s Day is my first without my lovely mum - an extraordinary, ordinary working class woman who brought her three kids up singlehanded and challenged herself, her kids and her community.  

There is a wonderful Maori phrase that describes women like my mum - Wahine Toa. Though she was soft, kind, gentle and full of compassion, she was brave and  strong, leading for her family, leading in her community.

It was almost unbearable not to be able to get back to Mum last September when she became very ill very quickly and died four weeks later. I didn’t sign up to that when I moved to the other side of the planet but then we didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.

Typically, the last conversation I had with Mum was all about her being generous to me  - 'You did the right thing making the move to New Zealand, Jo for you and your family. Don’t ever doubt it.' That’s my mum, alert and giving, Wahine Toa to the end, making sure I was strong enough to be without her by easing that searing guilt which threatened to overwhelm me.

Mum challenged people to do better, be better, not to assume,  to question, to look out for others always and to not place false boundaries upon ourselves . No one gets big by you being small she would say. That highly supportive family environment enabled high challenge. 

We understood that from challenge comes change. It was up to us to be the change we wanted to see. Mum taught us it was our responsibility rather than choice  to challenge. It was  for us to stand up for ourselves and forge our own path, irrespective of the hand life had dealt us.

In standing up for  ourselves, we stood up for others - each new footstep along a path enabled others to place their feet more easily. If we didn’t like the status quo, we had to do something about it, be that action or standing firm in the face of obstacles hurled our way.

Given that, it’s no surprise  my favourite quote is  by Margaret Mead  - the quote  that if you cut me in half is my core belief which  fuels me.  'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.'

We are all responsible for our thoughts and actions, all day, every day. While we can’t stop atrocities committed by individuals in the world, through our  individual thoughts and actions we can chose the types of communities we want to live in, the workplaces we work in, the organisations we lead. Collectively we can all help to create inclusive, empowered environments in which people can thrive. 

We can choose to tear people down for their faults, or build them up  for their achievements. We can define people and communities by what they don’t have or by their innate strengths and possibilities. We can choose to challenge when we see inequality, gender bias, racism, homophobia and poor behaviour in general or we can walk on by.

When we choose not to  challenge and  walk on by instead, we accept that standard we’ve left unchallenged as the new  standard. And then the dial goes back a little more, so each time standards can slip further.  None of us are perfect, me included and we will all get things wrong. As a rule though, let’s try not to walk on by .

This International Women’s Day, I put my hand up to #ChooseToChallenge. As  my mother’s daughter, it’s my responsibility to continue to do this  on IWD and every day. I  choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world. Here’s to IWD, my mum Jessie  and to Wahine Toa everywhere. May we know them, may we  be them, may we raise them.

Jo Miller is a past president of Solace and is chief executive of Hutt City Council, New Zealand

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