I am interviewing Sarah Perugia. Sarah is an accredited Executive Leadership Coach, Team Facilitator and Key Note Speaker. One of her coaching programmes is called Women on a Mission which focuses on helping women entrepreneurs to build confidence and vision to overcome barriers. I hope to find out a little more about Sarah, her career and her focus on celebrating and supporting women leaders. This felt like a fitting topic to explore around International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Each for Equal. 

This is part three of our interview.

M: Can you tell me about any gender specific barriers have you faced in your career?


S: I don’t think I have had a really solid obvious glass ceiling moment, but I have noticed lots of small things over the years. Sometime people ask me, “Why do you do work with women around resilience?” As you can imagine the next question is “Do they need more help? Are they less resilient?” I have to take a long deep breath and say no! they are often more resilient! When you are standing in the inclusion space it’s hard to fully empathise. The stories I hear day after day are about exclusion. When we are excluded or facing even a small moment of bias, a tiny bit of our energy gets taken away.  We have a finite amount of energy and bias and exclusion chip away until we are running on empty and it’s exhausting.

S: It’s so subtle at times that its’ difficult to push back on. A question they ask, or a tone of voice, or a question, or an instruction that wouldn’t have been an instruction if I were a male. These things are hard for women to push back on because if I said in that moment to that person would you have used that tone of voice if I were a man they would be baffled because it is unconscious. It is an unconscious bias. It’s almost more difficult space where the bias and exclusion is so subtle that it’s like trying to catch soap in the bath trying to push back on it. These are stories I hear day in and day out. This is where we can jump in and push back for others, it’s easier to call that out for someone else than for ourselves.

M: So subtle and in my experience so frequent that if you tried to push back on it every time you would feel exhausted.

S: Yes and you would also alienate those people you really need to be connected with. I experience that as a female leadership facilitator. When I first started facilitating, I was very much in the minority. Most other people doing the job I was doing were men with white hair in grey suits. I was considerably younger at that point, I was 30 and I looked young for 30. Constantly people would assume I was the assistant or there to take the notes. That was a really long time ago and I don’t think people would do that now. We can help by being ready to lift each other up. I have a male colleague who always raises my status in the way he speaks to me and about me. It’s enormously helpful as it challenges any invisible bias in the room, and makes my job a million times easier.

M: Women are still on the back foot. We have to celebrate those moments when women are achieving and there is success in the room. If you said the same about him it wouldn’t be so offensive because he doesn’t have the same fight to fight.

S: I’m doing a keynote for a large Tech company on IWD talking about bias. We all have to be constantly vigilant and responsible. We all have it and without a doubt, I have behaved with bias. I think it’s very important that we don’t just look at gender. As a women about to turn 50 there is a really interesting intersectionality. Not only do we have assumptions about women but we also have assumptions about women over 50. Bias pops up everywhere, it’s not just about gender, sexuality, ethnicity or age. It’s important to tell stories of exclusion and understand that when we tackle bias, we change lives. I hear stories every single day from clients and colleagues about exclusion and bias. What’s the impact? Not just for women but for everyone.

M: With those subtleties it’s such a harder shift especially with unconscious bias. It’s done usually without intent but it can cause offence and it’s not okay. Like you say calling it out can be so much more difficult because it could mean you in turn offend other person and ruin a relationship. We should be open to criticism but we are mortified if we ever offend someone even if we didn’t intend to. Glad we are dealing with subtleties.