I was very proud but also a bit scared when my 9 year-old son announced this summer that in addition to rugby, he also wanted to join the after school netball club.
Proud, because at his current school, the norm is that boys play rugby and girls play netball. He was sticking his head above the parapet and breaking with the norm! YES!
Scared, because breaking with the norm means choosing to be different, not going with the flow, and that’s not always very comfortable!
The first session of netball was last night.
It fell at the same time and on the same day as rugby – so he had to make a choice.
He chose netball and he was the only boy.
A few of the girls were welcoming, excited to see one of the boys trying out “their” sport. Others challenged his desire and his right to be there.
But overall, he loved it. He walked off the court with a smile and wants to go back next week. A “breaking with the norm” experience that was positive – YES!
Another YES! moment for me was in the way his school and his teacher, Miss C., handled his choice.
It got me to reflecting on some of the parallels of being the different person in the room – as a child at school and as an adult in the workplace – and what makes both of those experiences a bit easier for us.
Strong role models
My son has a great role model at school in Miss C. – someone who embraces differences. She openly shares her passion for rugby and cricket, her experience growing up as the only girl on boys’ rugby teams and she is a successful women’s club rugby player today. In organisations too, we need role models – leaders who recognise and value our differences – whether in gender, culture, sexuality, background etc. We need to see people we can identify with in positions of power and authority, or in positions which we aspire to reach; people who give us a reason to think it’s possible for us to do it too.
Miss C. addressed the elephant in the room (or the small boy in the room) upfront, welcomed my son as a new member of the team and invited the girls to welcome him too…I have no doubt that if the questioning of my son continues, she will be opening up the discussion again and asking what’s behind their questions.
Leaders with emotional intelligence and the courage to address the tough subjects make the experience of being different easier too. Perhaps this is more straightforward with a class of twenty 9 year-olds, than a team of gnarly adults, I don’t know! But we need leaders who can get stuck in, who ask questions, who don’t let difficult situations fester, even when it’s uncomfortable.
…With an appetite for change
We know that long term cultural change in any organisation has to be led from the top. So, leaders who see the opportunity for change, and make it happen by slowly but surely breaking down old assumptions and driving new behaviours, are very valuable. At netball club, Miss C. introduced a simple rule that every single team member had to touch the ball before a goal could be scored… ensuring that even the boy they didn’t want to pass to at first, was included in the game. And so it begins!
A “you’ve got this” support network
Colleagues, family, friends… are also key in making the decision to be the different person in the room feel easier. Encouragement and motivation go a long way to letting the person know you’re there for them, whatever happens.
A couple of close family members pooh-poohed my son’s decision to do netball as a choice with “no future and no clubs for boys to play netball later on.” *
Apart from the obvious fact that nothing will ever change if one person doesn’t start initiating that change, he is learning. Learning both transferable skills like team work, hand-eye coordination etc, but also important life skills.
Knowing who you are, standing up for what you want and believe in, daring to embrace your difference– from my biased opinion as his mum – is a fundamental and very cool thing for him to be learning. And will no doubt give him a greater appetite and greater resilience for the day when he decides to take a risk and be the different person in the room again.
I couldn’t give a damn what sport he plays – I’m very proud of the person he is and the decisions he is making for himself.
* By the way this isn’t true – though netball for boys is not widely available, there is an England’s Men’s and Mixed Netball Association, and many schools in the UK actively encourage and offer netball for boys.