This week I was at the launch of Lloyds ‘Helping Britain Prosper’ plan. I noticed that they have a goal to have 40% women filling executive positions by 2020. On the tube on the way home I read that empirical evidence has been gathered that bringing women into senior roles affects the bottom line – positively. When later I asked a senior man in DIFD what the one thing he thinks needs to be done that would change the destiny of the millions living below the breadline he said “educate and empower women”.
I myself come from a strong line of women – all of whom have had to carve out their own destinies. Marked among them are my grandmother who – in her early 30’s, widowed with 2 children and no education – set up a tie factory in Africa. Or my mother who challenged the status quo in South Africa by being a female physiotherapist to major sports teams – “a women in the locker rooms”.
I’m not however a feminist – I get squeamish at any kind of separation – probably a legacy of growing up under apartheid. Although I hear the need for ‘special treatment’ I think on one level this reinforces the idea of victimhood and perpetrates the very issue it’s trying to solve. For many years my best friend headed up a national institution to further the rights of women and although I appreciated the institutional acknowledgement of gender imbalance, I was a hesitant to support it (bad friend!). I wanted instead to change the perspectives that forced this need – across all sectors of our diverse society and not just gender related.
I’ve worked in large commercial institutions all my life. I have listened in on the tense debates about how to succeed women have to ‘turn into men’, that those females that reach the top are harder on other women and that women ‘opt out’ to care for families and are not a reliable corporate investment. My last ‘real’ job I was paid almost 20% less than the men on our team – despite the high pressure and profile of my role within it.
Yet, despite this loaded topic and my own discomfort with gender as a focal point, I have come to deeply appreciate the women who have given me a hand up – particularly in my career over the past few years. Perhaps (somewhat ironically!), it is a particularly female attribute to express gratitude for a reciprocal relationship – I do deliver on our tacit agreements. However, I know that without the support of these women in my sector I – no matter how talented – would not be able to fully play out my unique attributes and dreams for both self-manifestation and social change. I don’t offer a ‘plug and play’ set of skills – I’m not an accountant, a lawyer, a teacher or with a clear boxed set of proven skills. I’m a business change maker, a commercial transformer – a more tricky proposition. Somehow it is majority women, (and a few enlightened men!), who read my potential and take significant risks to match them to their organisations, bring me into senior roles and create conditions to allow me to flourish.
6heads started with a call from a very busy senior woman to meet to discuss what we could do for her organisation. Yesterday I was introduced to executive decision-makers by another women, who trusted me to support and enrich a critical initiative. Today a third called me to tell me that a proposal that will radically affect my future, my fortunes and the lives of hundreds of others has been accepted – I know she has been working extremely hard in the background building confidence in me to make this happen.
I think all of us with all of our diverse strengths and perspectives – be it gender, race, nationality or perspective have a significant contribution to make to a better world. But I am deeply grateful for the women that took time to understand, trusted their intuition and have reached a hand out to me, as I continue to carve my unique career journey. I won’t let you down!
Perhaps it is this invisible network of care that will ultimately, positively effect change in any under-represented part of our society that requires visibility and opportunity in order to thrive.
And now I have to go – I have a call with a young woman who wants career advice – I’m consciously paying it forward.
Thank you ladies.