As a woman, I celebrated International Women’s Day by reflecting on the talented, strong and independent women in my life. Family, Friends, Colleagues, Strangers; all progressing in their own lives, in their unique ways and encouraging development in others.
I was asked to write a piece about my own journey and current role as CEO of The Way Youth Zone as a woman. I was appointed CEO in August 2017 at the age of 33. I was surprised, amazed and terrified and while I was proud of my achievement, one I have worked incredibly hard for, it most definitely represented the start of a new journey rather than a destination.
I have never really considered my gender in relation to my career because from my point of view biological make-up does not define me. However, I do understand that it’s not that simple and that there are social and cultural norms and expectations pertaining to gender. I have certainly been in meetings in my career where people expect me to make tea rather than decisions simply because of my gender. I have also been judged negatively because of my looks in such a way that suggests the sum total of my value as a woman is how attractive I am to other people rather than my mind, personality, accomplishments or compassion.
For this experience and others like it both subtle and overt, I am proud to be part of a growing number of female leaders across all sectors that is visible and has a voice.
Despite some progress, there’s more to be done. Now is the time for further development and empowerment of female voices and ideas in all arenas and environments. This can only lead to a positive society where girls and women are encouraged to flourish and be who they are without judgement, permission or expectations and without anyone else losing out. There is room for us all. A space for achieving and aspiring that comes from having visible role models for all young girls that are searching for their own place in the world.
As a young girl, I was often labelled as ‘bossy’ and ‘stubborn’ and ‘ambitious’ and sometimes a combination of all three. These labels were usually accompanied by a face that suggested these were probably not admirable traits for a little girl and occasionally a comment that explicated stated that was the case. I wasn’t fazed and remained inquisitive and wanted to learn and soaked up experiences all around me. I had no real concept of being a leader or any real aspirations to be so. In fact, my childhood career dreams were typical for girls in the 90’s based on what I saw around me – I wanted to be either a nurse, teacher, or nun!
As I have matured and had different experiences, both personal and professional, the traits listed above, and others, have enabled me to be a leader and make difficult decisions, raise aspirations, lead a team and take an active part in making positive changes in the world. However, I am not special and genuinely believe everyone has the potential to succeed in whatever way success is important to them.
It is vital that young women, like the 1000+ female members at The Way, see women in different roles and professions and are encouraged that they can do and be anything they want to. My advice would be to seize every opportunity. Try new things, meet new people, say “yes” more often. Aim high, in whatever way ‘high’ means to you. Be authentic. There is only one you and you will find enjoyment and fulfillment in roles and opportunities that suit you. Ask for advice, make mistakes, laugh and be considerate of others in all you do.
I believe attitudes are changing and shifting and women and girls have far more choice and opportunity now than ever before, but we are still undeniably underrepresented and underpaid in the majority of arenas and in the worst cases, across the world abused and not given any rights or voice at all. We have a collective responsibility to look forward and press for progress by working with young people to raise their aspirations. In my lifetime, I hope to see a time when days like International Women’s Day don’t need to exist because there are equal opportunities for all.
P.S. I am still bossy, stubborn and ambitious!