This time last year my diary was full of events, conferences, talks, shows that I was attending and training and promotions that we were offering ourselves. This year is a very different story. And it’s not because there aren’t events to attend, or training and support to offer, and an opportunity for promotions and advertising.
I have been a feminist since even before I knew what it meant. And yes, I am happily and proudly using that label. Don’t get me started about the word feminism and what it might mean, and all the different variations it could and should include. To me it was very simple when I was young, and it hasn’t got that much different now. Why were boys treated differently than girls? Why were girls treated differently than boys?
In primary school I was the one questioning why we had to do knitting and sewing, when the woodwork looked much more interesting. And why was it that a boy couldn’t learn to knit or sew if that took his interest. Why was I expected to like dolls and pretend tea parties, when actually building a den out in the trees in a field looked like much more fun.
That kept going through secondary school. Being steered towards the caring professions and even being told that being a teacher was a great job for me because I would have the summer off with my children. I was about 13 at the time, children were a long way off, and who knew if they would even happen at all at that stage.
My mum is from a farming background and had left school pretty early because that was what girls from her background did then. Her own mother had died when she was young, and she stepped into that caring and domestic role. When we got older and my Mum would have liked a job, there weren’t many options open for her. She wasn’t looking for a career, just a little something for her, her own identity, and her independence. I remember in my teens when she passed her driving test, and the freedom and independence that immediately gave her. A job of her own would have been the next step in that.
I lost count of the number of times my Mum encouraged me to stay at school, to go to University and get a job and a career for myself. She had three daughters. A small thing maybe, but we all learned to drive at 17. She wanted independence for each of us.
So, I went to University, and in the midst of a lot of fun years, I read feminist books, I even studied a women’s literature module, I marched, I protested. My friends and I thought we would be the ones to change things, that our generation would see equal choices and opportunities.
In my first training job, more than 25 years ago, one of the first courses I delivered was a two day women’s development programme. When men asked me why women needed a separate course, I asked them to look at the statistics within the organisation and think about why so few women were in management roles, let alone senior leadership roles.
I have been supporting women ever since. Some of the things I am proudest of in my career may seem small things to others but to me they are huge. Encouraging a young mum in a clerical role to come on her first accredited programme with me and then go on to further courses, and get a couple of promotions to the job that made her happy. Supporting an older women with tons of experience and talent but no qualifications, to recognise her potential, sail through the course because of that experience and then keep going, career and development wise. The women who have came to me for interview support, who see their experience and potential as insignificant, talk about ‘just’ doing this or that in their role, and who almost feel it’s wrong somehow to think about promotion. The little lightbulbs that light up when they start to see and believe in their experience and talents, and allow themselves to start to create a plan for their career. I compare them to the man who came to me for interview support and who said he was applying for jobs that he knew he wasn’t qualified for because it was time for a promotion, he deserved it, and eventually he would get one of them.
And so, why more than 25 years later am I not doing anything for International Women’s Day?
The simple answer is because things haven’t changed.
I have seen brilliant women crushed by trying to do it all. I have seen organisation restructuring programmes where the men retain their posts or move into more senior roles, whilst the very capable women were demoted or lost their post. Why? Because they were a bit too bolshy, they spoke out, they questioned, said their piece. In just the same way that men did, but viewed very differently.
Like every woman I know, I could write a book about my own experiences. As a young graduate trainee being told to go home early because a senior male member of staff wanted me to go to a meeting with him on my own. Working in a job for years before realising that I was doing the same work as colleagues in a higher grade, and then being labelled difficult and demanding when I queried it. Being told by members of my team that I was good to work with because I didn’t complain like other mothers about childcare arrangements; they didn’t see the frenzied rushing, arrangements and guilt that went on behind the scenes and I knew not to share it with them.
A couple of standout memories for me. During a huge organisational restructuring, when I pointed out that staff needed support and training to reapply for their own jobs, I was told I was ambulance chasing by a senior leader. No one needed any of that fluffy emotional stuff. When I chose to leave, another senior leader who never asked me what I intended to do next and then was surprised, and somewhat annoyed for some reason, to find later that I had set up my own business. Perhaps if he had spent less time in the meeting commenting on the tan and outfit of a female colleague in the meeting, he might have thought to ask.
Two years ago, I started my own business and I’ve attended lots of well-meaning training programmes for women and female entrepreneurs. And for many of those training programmes, it was as though this was a hobby, a little something extra, to be fitted in around the school run. There was no fire, no ambition. Maybe women were starting their own businesses because they needed flexibility, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have big goals and it doesn’t mean they can’t achieve great things. I was asked on several occasions why I had set my business up formally as a limited company.
And then we have Covid and the impact that it has had on all our lives, but especially women.
I am tired of speaking to women who aren’t just at breaking point, but have broken. I am tired of speaking to women who are absolutely exhausted, trying to balance everything and keep all the plates spinning at their own expense. I am tired of speaking to women, sometimes pretty senior women, who are working at the kitchen table and at the same time managing the majority of home schooling, housework and even other caring responsibilities, whilst their male partner is ensconced in a separate room, not to be disturbed because he is at work. And I am tired of speaking to women who aren’t paid enough for what they do, the key workers who we can clap for but not pay properly, and those women whose jobs won’t exist after this is over.
And I know that’s only what I see. I know that I am in a fortunate position and that many of the women I interact with are too. The statistics around domestic violence are shocking, and heart-breaking. The rise in poverty is shameful in a society as wealthy as ours. And inequality is not created equally: ethnicity, class, age, disability, sexuality, geography, mental health, and poverty add often multiple layers of discrimination. Until we deal with the structural, cultural and policy issues that contribute to all of this we will not see real change.
So, I am tired, angry, and frustrated this International Women’s Day. I do not feel like celebrating.
But I am not tired of supporting and championing women.
This year I decided that I did not want to go to event after event and listen to a successful women, or maybe even a panel of them, with the occasional supportive man thrown in for good measure. I don’t want to be inspired by them and I certainly don’t want other women to need to be inspired by them. I want it to be a given that we all have access to opportunities and that we can succeed. And that success will look different to each of us, and that’s okay too.
And I definitely do not want to hear another organisation talk about the great things they are doing for women, which usually seem to involve setting up a forum, talking about some very limited version of flexible working, writing a new policy, and maybe running a development programme. All with lots of photos and publicity. But with no follow through with the systematic and organisational change which is needed to really make enough of a difference. I have heard that for 25 years and I see no real change, especially now when women most of all need it. And, I still don’t quite understand how this isn’t understood, but those changes to support women in the workplace benefit us all, not just women.
The women I talk to are not just tired and weary, but frustrated and angry as well. And brilliant, and talented, and resourceful, and resilient.
This seems to me a threshold time in our society. A time that will go into the history books. We have an opportunity now to reshape things. And that’s what I am interested in.
Women have power, we all have power, more power than we know. And, even though we are tired, weary, and frustrated, it’s time to use that power, to choose to challenge and to speak up. To support our sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, colleagues, clients, and friends. We don’t have any other choice. It’s why I have chosen to write this. We can speak up loudly and boldly, or we can do so softly and gently. We can help and support each other as we do, choosing to be curious and learn from each other, rather than judge. Together we are stronger.
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”