Lilly Singh: "Women don't need a seat at the table - we need a new table"

The actress, comedian and bestselling-author on why success means building real space for women

lilly singh
Shayan Ashgarnia

When I was born, my grandparents in India didn’t hear about it for a couple of weeks. They had told my mom it wasn’t worth calling home about unless she had a son – she had already had a girl, and the family had expected her to get it right this time around.

When I showed up, she was 0 for 2. So, there were no traditional Indian sweets sent our way to celebrate my birth, no congratulations, just profound disappointment in my existence. It’s an experience and reality I share with hundreds of millions of girls across countries and cultures. To be born a brown girl in this world is to spend your life proving yourself – to be worthy, to be valued, to be equal.

When you’re dismissed and discounted from birth, you tend to look at success differently. For a long time, we’ve subscribed to the definition that success is finally getting a seat at the table. We all bought into the promise that, when you pull up a chair at that proverbial table, you have arrived. You have succeeded.

I have chased that damn seat my entire life; the pursuit has been the driving force behind my career. In the process, I’ve found success as a creator and a comedian (yes, women can be funny). I’ve been able to build an incredible community online. And I’ve broken long-standing late night TV tradition as the first bisexual woman of colour to host her own show. Along the way, I’ve had a chance to take a few seats at several tables. And I can tell you, as women, we can do better. For ourselves and for others.

To be born a brown girl in this world is to spend your life proving yourself

The chairs we’ve been getting aren’t the comfy ones, the supportive ones, or the fancy ones at the head of the table. No one is volunteering to give those up. We’re supposed to be satisfied with the wobbly ones, the squeaky ones, the ones that don’t quite reach the table, or somehow sit a little lower than others. After all, we should be grateful just to have a seat, right? When we finally get the coveted seat, none of us want to complain. We smile and keep trying to fix chairs that don’t quite work. Our energy is spent on making do, rather than making great. The thing is, even if we fix the chair, it won’t fix the real problem. Because the problem isn’t the chairs. The table was never built for us in the first place.

We keep jockeying for position around a finite number of tables that were built by others, for others. We certainly have a place there. But to realise our full potential, to truly be equal, we need to build big, new, better tables that serve the world from our point of view. And we need to build a lot of them… with enough room for everyone to bring our own chairs. And by chairs, I mean ideas and talent and abilities. Some may call this a path to a more gender-equal world. I call it, “building a table that doesn’t suck”, and I have a few ideas to get us started.

lilly singh ted
Gilberto Tadday / TED

First, we have to stop letting people weaponise gratitude. Gratitude is a great thing – it’s warm and fuzzy, it feels good and we should all practice it. But it doesn’t replace money, promotions and opportunities, and we shouldn’t have our seats at the table threatened if we don’t seem appropriately grateful to be there.

The problem isn’t the chairs - the table was never built for us in the first place

As women, we are routinely assigned more work than the men we work with, much of it unrecognised, unrewarded and consisting of non-promotable tasks. In other words, we get the stuff men don’t want to do. Maybe they aren’t grateful enough.

Next, we have to invest in potential, putting our money into things that are different and that may take time to be realised. Proof is usually valued over potential – but when you’re doing something new, when you’re changing a culture, when you’re trying something that has never been done before, there is no proof. Until you invest in potential and create it.

Be a Triangle
Lilly Singh

Finally, we have to make space for more women. Right now, there is only one woman at the table for every three men – even though companies with gender-diverse leadership are 25 per cent more likely to deliver above average profitability (and racially diverse companies enjoy 35 per cent more profitability than others). Clearly, we need to expand the table, add more chairs and set more places for a wider array of people.

None of this will be easy, but it’s all necessary to build a future where we create bigger, better tables instead of fighting for a seat at the old ones. A future where we are all seated as equals. A future where being defined as female at birth is neither a disappointment nor a disadvantage, because girls are encouraged, empowered and expected to do great things.

Lilly Singh's latest book, Be a Triangle: How I went from being lost to getting my life into shape, is released in April. Watch Lilly Singh's TED Talk here.

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