Today is a day where we all celebrate the achievements of women. This annual event is an opportunity to reflect on how far women have come, but also how far we have to go to achieve equality for all women.
Each year has a dedicated theme, and this year is no different. The theme for 2023 is ‘embracing equity – it’s not just something we say’. Equity isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. It’s something we need to think about, know, value and embrace.
Equity and equality are often used together, but these concepts have different meanings:
- Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities
- Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome
In recognition of International Women’s Day (IWD), we have spoken with our female Executive Management Committee members about how they navigate the world and share their unique lived experiences through the lens of embracing gender equity.
What would you change about the assumptions of women?
Sarah: I’m not sure it is necessarily an assumption, but I think women often have to work harder to find a style of communication at work because traits such as assertiveness can be perceived negatively, whereas traits that may fit a gender stereotype of women such as a gentler approach can result in a misjudgement that you would struggle in a leadership position.
Eleanor: I think businesses lose a lot of capability in part time workers. There is often an assumption made about the level of commitment, focus and priorities of part time workers (who are more frequently, although not exclusively women). I worked part time for 13 years whilst my children were younger and although it’s definitely improving, I would love to see more opportunities for part timers to progress their careers and contribute to their full potential.
Are there any women in history that have inspired you?
Jo: The women that I admire the most are often in my family or friendship circle. They are women that have gone through challenges and tragedies but have used their experiences to help others. But if I have to pick some well-known names, its women who have done things that weren’t expected of them or have helped clear obstacles for those coming up behind them – women like Gloria Steinem, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart and Katherine Graham. If you have time, I really recommend reading Katharine Graham’s biography, ’Personal History’. Due to losing her husband by suicide, she found herself caring for her daughter and in charge of a leading newspaper, at a time when women didn’t hold such positions. So not only was that a significant challenge, but she was courageous and stood by her convictions to help uncover the whole Watergate scandal – if that’s not inspiring then I don’t know what is!
What barriers have you overcome and how did you do this?
Paula: I suffer from anxiety. In the past, I have let opportunities bypass me because I was not brave enough to step outside my comfort zone. I would not say that I have broken this barrier yet, but I have learnt to be brave and manage my anxiety to allow me to take more chances in life.
Jo: I’m probably very lucky (or naïve) as I don’t think my gender or background has held me back, although I do agree that there is a lack of diversity across many industries and typically, I think there is a smaller room for error for women. But I am positive and optimistic about the progress being made, although we still have a way to go in terms of representation (and not just women). We also need to be quicker at securing equality for women in all aspects of life, even in countries like ours where women have legal equality, inequalities still exist – issues like tampon poverty, gender pay gaps, women taking time out of the labour market to care for children and doing more unpaid work highlight some of the ongoing inequalities and the work still to be done.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been my own mind and imposter syndrome. Mental health is something that I’m a huge proponent of talking about as it affects everyone at some point. Over the past few years I’ve tried to improve my personal and professional life (through things like trying to get a better work/life balance and working with mentors), and can honestly say its liberating to say “I’m figuring this out and looking for new challenges – and that will involve mistakes and successes – but I have worked for the opportunities put in front of me”. It gives me a more a positive mindset and helps me make better decisions.
What is your biggest achievement?
Jo: Apart from my gorgeous babies/hell-demons, it’s not really any single thing, I think the thing I’m most proud of is staying true to who I am through being accessible and faithful to my principles throughout my career.
What would you say to your younger self?
Sarah: Be more confident in yourself.
Paula: To have confidence and believe in your self-worth. Also, not to place huge expectations on yourself to be all things to all people. It has taken me years to understand that I cannot be at my best in all aspects of my life at the same time. Instead, I now focus on where my energy is needed at a certain time (whether it be professionally or at home) so I can be my best.
Eleanor: I think that in general women can be less confident about their own strengths and abilities, and question themselves more, my younger self was certainly like this. I remember at secondary school getting an award for being the ‘most modest’, I was about 16, It was given as a positive but looking back now I would advise my younger self to be more confident and sell my abilities more.
Be kind to yourself – Life can be very stressful especially when you are juggling the needs of children, a house and a career. It’s easy to set unrealistic perfectionist targets. Looking back at when my children were younger, I would say enjoy the small things and don’t worry so much about making sure everything is perfect, it doesn’t matter if a few things drop here and there.
What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders?
Sarah: Don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone, if you wait until you feel 100% prepared for something you will miss out on opportunities.
Paula: To be open minded and curious about things. Not to be afraid to make mistakes, it takes a lot of strength to re-set when things are not going well. It is not a sign of weakness.
Jo: Don’t be scared to make mistakes and do things that you don’t tick every box for. I think we need to encourage women to take bigger leaps of faith in themselves, I’ve seen it where women I know (including myself) will see a role they want to go for but can only fulfil eight out of the 10 role requirements so they will go away and create a development plan for those things and only once they’ve done that do they think they are ready to do that job. Stop being so hard on yourself, be open to asking for & receiving help and you’ll find the way – plus the buzz of proving yourself can be amazing.
And finally, What’s your International Women’s Day message?
Sarah: I genuinely believe it is so important for women to support other women. I am lucky enough to have worked with some amazing women in my career who have taught me a huge amount, so I hope that I can pass some of that on.
Paula: I think there is still a long way to go in building equality, however it does not always have to be grand gestures to make a difference. Taking a number of meaningful small steps can also build a diverse, equal and inclusive environment.
Eleanor: There are thousands of inspiring quotes for International Women’s Day, but my own message to any aspiring leader would be:
- Ask for what you want – don’t assume that others know what your aspirations are
- Be confident in what you can do – don’t let the little voice in your head tell you that someone else knows more that you do / is better than you / someone else would have chosen you if you were good enough
- Where you can, lift others up and help them achieve alongside you.
Jo: Support and build up the women (and all colleagues) around you – telling someone how amazing they are might just be what they need to hear that day. I would encourage everyone to speak up, it’s our responsibility to move things forward in terms of equality, equity and diversity. Equality and diversity (and not just in relation to gender) is something to be celebrated, it changes things for the better as we all come from so many different perspectives and that helps to cultivate a strong and innovative culture.