career

'I interviewed three Australian businesswomen about female strength. They all had one thing in common.'

Ostelin
Thanks to our brand partner, Ostelin

"Strength doesn't show itself in a comfortable space," Gladys Peters told the room. 

The General Manager of Sanofi Consumer Healthcare was telling the audience about her battle with breast cancer, while sitting on a panel celebrating female strength. A panel I was hosting for Ostelin's new brand campaign, Project Strong

She had the watching audience gripped. We were sitting in the downstairs function room of a busy restaurant, and despite the clangings of a commercial kitchen in the background – in that room, you could have heard a pin drop. 

"Life throws you curveballs. That's when you have to dig deep and you have to pull out something that will meet a challenge head on," she told us.

Gladys Peters. Image: Supplied.

"It was in the middle of my first year as GM with Sanofi, and it was an incredible period where I went; I know myself as a woman, as a business leader, and as a mum. I don't know myself as someone who is suddenly having to carry what might be seen as a sentence of weakness."

But finding strength in that moment is not a journey Gladys had to travel alone. She had a leadership team who stepped up and scooped up her responsibilities, and moments of pure kindness from strangers that buoyed her. Like the hairdresser who made time in her busy schedule to shave Gladys' head when she called the popular salon panicked that her hair was coming out in clumps.

"If you're able to come at 1pm, I will do it," the stylist had told her down the line. 

It was borrowing strength from others that helped Gladys bolster her own. 

And she wasn't alone. 

Sitting on that panel with me were three women from completely different worlds. Alongside Gladys was Samantha Gash, endurance athlete, former Survivor contestant and social change entrepreneur and Alicia Curtis, co-founder of Australian charity 100 Women, the official partner of Ostelin's Project Strong campaign.

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But as these three women told me their stories, the common through line was impossible to ignore; female strength is not something you foster alone, and that's what makes it powerful.

Alicia started 100 Women nine years ago because she felt helpless. She looked at the world around her and how it treated women and thought, 'How can I make a difference?' 

"When I put it out on social media this idea of '100 women' people wanted to get involved. They wanted something tangible to say 'you know what I see on the news isn't resonating with me. But I don't know how to create that change,'” she said. 

"So 100 Women gave people that opportunity to get involved. To make that difference and be part of a collective, global movement that was able to create that change."

Within eight months, 100 Women had raised their first $100,000 grant to give away. It was female strength at its best – women coming together and using each other's networks to empower women and girls globally. By partnering with Ostelin for Project Strong, the charity is continuing that mission. This time they're expanding their power and influence into the branded business world, with the duo hoping to empower and celebrate the strength of all women by providing financial grants to women and girls' projects. 

But female strength doesn't just show through in the almighty acts of grandness. 

In a single year, Samantha Gash ran four 250km ultramarathons in the hottest, driest, windiest and wettest deserts on earth. In fact, she has run 35,000km on every continent on this planet. But strength to her isn't about the physical and mental challenge that kind of athleticism demands; it's about what's below the surface. 

Samantha Gash, Gladys Peters, Gemma Bath and Alicia Curtis. Image: Supplied.

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"A strong woman is one who owns her power, which actually empowers other women to own theirs as well. What I am loving more and more the older I get is women who are strong, collaborate. They remove this notion of a scarcity mindset even if women are in exactly the same field as them, and instead, work in combination with them. You are always greater with the sum of multiple people who are strong, than if you work as an isolated person," she said. 

Take, for example, raising her son Harry. Sam doesn't consider herself very 'good' on the domestic front. 

"My husband does the cooking, and in my mum's group they know I am not that great at that, and they come over with all the tupperwear lined up to help me do my pantry. One of them came over recently to help me set up Ikea furniture," she said.

"They're a lot of things that we're progressing, in terms of roles, but I think one thing that remains true is 'it takes a village to raise a family.' I 100 per cent prescribe to that. I used to never ask for help, and then I became a mum and not only am I going to ask for help, I am going to accept help as well."

What Sam gives back to those mums in her world is active play; getting them out on bush walks and trail hikes enjoying nature with their kids on their backs. 

"We don't have to be it all, and we don't have to compare," she said.

After hearing these three women – all of them a few years down the track, career and family wise to me – I found myself having a bit of a lightbulb moment.

I always thought strength was something I had to find on my own. According to Ostelin's research, while 83 per cent of Australians see women as strong, a quarter of women don't see themselves that way at all, citing a lack of physical strength, being too stressed and anxious or doubting themselves too much, as their reasons why. I would nestle myself somewhere in-between those last two reasons and the truth is I do let those things get in the way of my strength. Of me feeling like I am strong. 

But listening to these accomplished, incredible women speak – they didn't do any of it alone: build their careers, their families, their power, their influence. Sure, there were moments where they felt alone. Like when Gladys found herself pushing back against the stereotypical picture of what 'leadership' is in our society. 

Ostelin's research suggested 30 per cent of women don't consider themselves good at being 'assertive' when it comes to things like asking for a pay rise or a promotion and Gladys says that's because we think of leaders as "this very assertive, dominating type figure".

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"Countless times in my career, I would encounter a boss who would say 'you're excellent at your job, but you need to be more aggressive.' Someone told me 'show fangs'. But why?? Let's talk about outcomes and I will decide how we get there... But as long as that stereotype is propagated in our workplace, that is where women look at that picture and say – that's not me. Maybe I am not able to lead?"

Once Gladys broke through the other side of that and actually became a leader herself, she used her strength to help build up other women. And that's how this story seems to go again and again and again. It's about women helping women into their own version of strength.

"Strength and courage are magnified when you come together with others, with like-minded businesses, communities, families. When we connect, we can amplify our courage, and give eachother strength by coming together," explained Alicia. 

For Sam, it's all about "sharing the sh***."

"What empowers women is more people being real about the challenge. Because that is the most humanising part," she said. "Some of the most humanising values that women feel are that we don't belong, or we are an imposter, or things are hard. So if we share that..."

Three in four Australians think more should be done in our society to help women feel strong and after listening to Gladys, Sam and Alicia, it was obvious to me how we do that. We keep having these conversations; we keep talking about our challenges, and we keep building, and networking and sharing with other women. 

Ostelin's sobering statistics revealed that women undervalue themselves in all areas of their lives from home-life, to money to work and mental and physical strength. But the truth is sometimes women's strength manifests in different ways to what 'society' will have you believe is strong, and unfortunately in 2022 we're still re-writing that narrative. 

If I learnt anything from hosting this panel, it's that I don't have to climb that hill alone. 

There will always be another woman out there, willing to lend me their strength until I find my own. 

Watch what strong can do at www.ostelin.com.au/Project-Strong

Ostelin is Australia's number one bone health brand. Always read the label and follow the directions for use. 

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Feature Image: Project Strong. 

Ostelin
"A strong woman is empowered. She stands up for what she believes in to create a fair, just and inclusive world. Being strong is being compassionate, courageous and lifting up others. The fight for equality is not over. Gender equity is important - the world is a better place when every woman and girl can flourish." -Alicia Curtis, Founder of 100 Women charity