The duality of women’s history

Joanne Chan, chief executive, Turner Duckworth
Joanne Chan, chief executive, Turner Duckworth

During this year’s Women’s History Month, the CEO of global design firm Turner Duckworth reflects on the unexpected support systems that made her the person she is today.

My career has been paved with unexpected support systems.

A father who grew up as a British subject, deeply Catholic and patriarchal; yet believed that his daughters could achieve greatness on their own terms. To the point that when my husband’s best friend approached my father to pay him a compliment after my wedding speech, saying, “She could be President of the United States,” my father, not skipping a beat, answered, “No, she can’t because she was not born in this country”. Clearly, he had believed in my potential so much that he had thought about this and ruled it out on a technicality. This same father who would have been proud to have me follow in his footsteps as a surgeon found his way to support me in my studies of art history and psychology and my initial career in the museum world. This is how women’s history is written. 

My mother played the traditional part of wife and mom, piano teacher, painter, and doctor’s wife. The woman behind the great man was the quiet wife and devoted mother. Yet she was strong and taught me never to take no for an answer. She had a strength to her that sometimes caused tension in their marriage. She found ways to be both the doting wife and dutiful entertainer to support my father’s meteoritic rise in the medical field. And yet she found time to earn her BA in fine art, start her own real estate business, and raise two very strong-willed, Type-A, no-nonsense women.

I married a man who was raised by a quiet mother who was also a feminist, and an intellectual. She was strongly opinionated, well-read, and didn’t suffer fools gracefully. My husband proved to be a successful executive commercial producer for 20 years but pivoted in his 40s to quit his job, and support me in mine; becoming a stay-at-home father to our daughter so that I could focus on my burgeoning career — embodying the evolution of women’s history.

During this year’s Women’s History Month, I find myself reflecting on all of these important people in my life, who personify dualities in their own lives. And held multiple principles and values that allowed them to excel at contradicting achievements.

My mother was the traditional wife behind the surgeon, yet she also possessed the drive and ambition to make her own career. And whilst she was a homemaker, she didn’t raise me to be one.

My father was a patriarch of the family and demanded a traditional wife, but conversely believed that my sister and I should be the masters of our own destinies.

I married a career man who was raised to believe that the man had to be the breadwinner of a family, yet he managed to pivot, run our household, and be the man behind my success, and the most empathetic and doting father to our daughter.

The most influential people in my life have fulfilled their purposes to themselves and somehow managed to encourage and support me in ways that were incongruous with the values by which they made their own choices in their lives. Out of love for me, they chose to apply a different set of standards and expectations, without which, I would not be the person I am today. That is why Women’s History Month is so important to me. I was incredibly fortunate. Not all women are.

What are the odds that my mother, my father, and my husband are all remarkable in their innate abilities to be incredibly open-minded and accepting, and selfless, that they adopted a different set of standards and values in their support for me than they did for themselves?

So I ask myself, how can I do the same? What defines me as an individual? And can I turn my values upside down to unconditionally support someone I love, with an approach that seems counter to how I live my own life? 

The key to finding that is unconditional love. If you love someone so much, you don’t need them to agree with you, follow in your footsteps, or conform to your expectations. In fact, you try to understand what inspires them. And despite potentially finding their inspiration uninteresting to yourself, you do everything in your power to make their dreams come true.

And for myself, that is what Women’s History Month is all about. Passing down the love and support from my parents to the next generation of great women. 

When true love is shared, you can follow your own aspirations and live by your own values for yourself, AND be your loved one’s biggest supporter, champion, and cheerleader to help them achieve something you would never want for yourself.

That’s love in its purest form.

Joanne Chan is chief executive of Turner Duckworth

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