Are women just decorative items?

I woke up to a Tweet from someone I deeply respect, noting the presence of models at the Spotlight Awards. The Spotlight Awards highlight the successes of Canadian companies, and the proceeds from the event go to Next Canada, an organization aiming to create the next generation of high impact Canadian entrepreneurs. I participated in their flagship program, The Next 36, four years ago, and the program is now part of the Next Canada umbrella.

I wasn’t at the event — I currently reside in San Francisco — so I can’t speak to the feelings of those who were. But had I chosen to attend, I would have gone on their website and looked at the award recipients and the organizers. I would have seen many successful, smart people that could be powerful allies for me as a young entrepreneur. I would have carefully considered what to wear — does this outfit make me look too curvy, or fat? Would I look like I belong among these titans of industry? Should I straighten my curly hair to look more “professional?” I would have planned what “ask” to make to certain people, and I would have stacked my purse with business cards. The juxtaposition of professional ambition and the ability to “look” like one belongs in a group is not superficial to me and many others, including, I’m sure, many event attendees.

Awards are meant to celebrate the best of us and our communities. In planning an event to celebrate a community, I would hope the organizers would do their best to make all members of that community feel welcome. But these communities are voluntary. There is more than one I belong to at any given time, and my ability to participate does and will change based on my perception of inclusiveness and progress toward it. To arrive at an event and be greeted by a group of models would belittle my membership in the community, and make me feel outside of it. Truth be told, that was accomplished when I saw a Tweet and a photo.

I wasn’t at the event — I can’t comment on the feelings of those who were. But I’m also deeply unimpressed. And disappointed. I can understand that it takes time to change demographics — the diversity of people represented within the committee of co-chairs (12 of 13 are male) and the award recipients — but there are far better ways to be an ally in progress than inviting models to serve as… ambiance? Decoration? The message that sends to women or other minority communities in attendance is not one I can stand by. It’s not reflective of a community I want to be apart of. It’s certainly not how I envision the Next Canada.

Throughout the Next 36 program we were often told “to whom much is given, much is expected” — I no longer include biting my tongue on the list of expectations.

So, to all the people who have to think about what they’re wearing as much as what they say at business or networking events, and to all the people who are shy and feel like their voice isn’t heard; for all the people who don’t see their peers when they look around a professional setting, and for all those fighting a daily war to do bold and audacious things: I’m in your corner. And none of us are decorations.