The official International Women’s Day is over, but realistically every day should be a celebration of female success and an opportunity to champion equality. By sharing stories, learning from mistakes and empowering those around us, we can inspire conversations that will leave a legacy that infiltrates every corner of society.
One of the most powerful tools we have in the fight for feminism is the wealth of other women’s experiences. Understanding the struggles they have faced, the choices they have made and the mountains they have overcome can guide us when we come to make our own way in the world, and help to ensure we are paving a safe route for the women who will follow behind us.
Surrey Business School’s annual International Women’s Day event creates a positive space for attendees to gather together and hear from five exceptional women about their lives. For 2020 the panel featured speakers from a diverse range of industries and backgrounds, however there were several key themes that bound their stories together.
We heard from graphic designer and owner of Farrow Creative, Samantha Farrow; Founder and CEO of Cittadina Marketing, Margaret Sherer; Global Senior Director of IT delivery at Mars, Fiona Macaulay; Professor Helen Griffiths of Biomedical Sciences and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Surrey; and Jan Sawkins, who among many other impressive titles is Lay Member of the council of the University of Surrey.
With a mixture of creative thinkers, educational backgrounds and corporate careers, the honest, high-quality advice on offer was versatile and applicable to everyone, no matter what your current situation. The messages that stood out the most have become mantras that I will carry with me going forward, and by compiling and sharing them hopefully they will motivate you to get to where you want to be whilst including and supporting others.
This is one motto every woman firmly backed with individual reasons. It sounds simple, but in the competitive world of work it can be easy to get distracted from your authentic self to please others, or because you’re scared that people won’t like you for expressing different views to the majority.
“What I have learnt is that you’ve got to be yourself.” Born in the East End of London, Jan Sawkins fought against the expectations that committed women to certain roles, instead going onto higher education and pursuing a successful career in finance and banking after receiving a joint honours degree in French and Modern History from Reading University. Jan’s work ethic and personal boundaries have helped her carve out her own path, and she highlighted how important it is to know what you won’t tolerate, as ultimately, we define how other people treat us.
Staying true to yourself goes hand in hand with knowing what you want. I for one am guilty of going with the flow and trying to make the best out of all my endeavours, without giving the bigger picture much thought. In the past this has been my downfall when it came to making decisions, because I didn’t have sturdy roots to ground me or the self-confidence to fight for sturdy principles.
“No matter whether it’s in your partnership, or your life, or your job, first understand what your goals are.” Margaret Sherer excellently emphasised the significance of setting targets and regularly checking in with yourself along the way. If we have clearly mapped the mountains we need to climb, we can figure out how to get there without compromising who we are. Everyone has different ambitions, and while the journey towards your finish line is imperative, Margaret explained how key it is to celebrate overcoming each small hurdle and rewarding ourselves. Even the seemingly small victories are huge in comparison to where you will eventually end up; whether that’s moving to another city, earning an internship at a company you idolise or getting married.
If you’re overwhelmed by the decision of what you really want to do in life, Margaret suggests starting with what you definitely don’t want to do, and going from there. Coming from a woman who began her career working at Google and Microsoft, and is now co-founder of a unique marketing company, I’m pretty sure she’s onto something! And if after setting off in one direction you change your mind, that’s okay too. Just ensure you are sticking to your roots by making choices that bring you joy and not excluding anyone around you. We have to remember that life is not static; we are constantly growing and setting new challenges.
A good way to keep track of progress is the method Margaret has evolved to measure success, based on her data-driven approach to solving problems. “Take a moment to reflect on your own data. Look how far you have come.” Whether that’s in terms of the skills you had to develop to get into university or building your professional network, it should help you understand that you’re probably doing better than you initially suspect, so you can be a little nicer to yourself.
Helen Griffiths reinforced this idea with the insightful perspective that, “If you end up compromising your values, you won’t be satisfied in where you are and that won’t be the place you want to be.” From a young age, Helen realised she wanted to work in academia and change people’s lives for the better, and her passion and commitment saw her develop a long and rewarding profession through teaching. Despite what life may throw at us, we will be safe in the knowledge that we have dealt with challenges in a way that feels right and true to ourselves.
This is worth considering when applying for jobs, as we should be looking for an environment that will fit us well, just as much as how well we suit the requirements. After graduating with a degree in geology, Fiona Macaulay started out in exploration with British Petroleum (BP), looking for oil. This was a very male-dominated environment and as a woman submerged in a different culture she found herself in the minority, something she hadn’t knowingly experienced before.
Fiona highlighted one difficulty attached to being in the minority, a commonality as a woman working in business, which is that, “people try to get you to be the same as them.” Being brave enough to stand your ground and assert your personality and morals is an invaluable trait that Fiona has learned through her vast experience working across several companies and in foreign countries. Filtering an organisation that complements your ethos is essential, as when you enjoy working somewhere you are encouraged to bring your entire self to work, as Fiona attests to have found in her current role at Mars. This increases the likelihood that you will enjoy it and the confidence aligned with that will boost productivity and happiness, and push you to reach your full potential.
Have a good support system
Each of the five women related a degree of their success to having a good support system around them. A great boss, strong friendships or a supportive husband all have your best interests at heart, and therefore will champion you to excel.
“You always need someone who is your ambassador.” For Sam Farrow, that’s her dad. Being able to lean on someone in times of hardship is essential, but your network can also ground you when you are uncertain about whether or not you can do something. Sam’s incredibly brave and resilient attitude has driven her to brilliant accomplishments within the graphic designing industry, but it also forces her to be bold when she’s internally panicking. Having her dad to rely on is an added force to propel her forward in moments of self-doubt.
When attending a talk by Karen Brady CBE, Sam used the coffee break as an opportunity to pitch her company to the powerful businesswoman, whilst the rest of the audience was filling up on tea and cake. Her courageous attitude (externally at least) and firm trust in herself was recognised by Brady, who invited her to meet up the following day. When Sam was sat in the car park freaking out because she felt like an imposter, who did she call? Her dad, who reassured Sam enough to convince her she was prepared. The end result? “We ended up designing two websites for Karen Brady and going on to do other work with her.” This is solid proof that your support system can give you that extra leap of faith to realise you are enough.
Advocates can be useful in other respects, such as when it comes to deservedly asking for more money or a promotion. According to Fiona, we tend to have higher standards than our male counterparts and wait until we believe we are at the right level before putting ourselves forward. “Find the people who are your supporters. Make sure you get a mentor too – people who believe in you and will give you that support. Surround yourself.”
Support doesn’t just have to come in the traditional form of a parent, colleague, or mentor, though. Partners can provide solace when life challenges, like maternity leave, threaten to impact your career. Fiona worked across various business departments for a long time, including retail, trading and even a five-year assignment to Singapore. The person always there cheering her on is her husband, who remained at home in the UK during her secondment.
Mentoring is a great responsibility to remember for when you have the chance to give back. Helen recognises that at some point we will all have the authority and education to do so, and it can be both critically helpful, and rewarding. One positive outcome is that having a tutor in this context can challenge as well as encourage. “You want people that will ask you the hard questions because sometimes you don’t want to answer them yourself.”
Nurture other women and groups
“As a woman you have to be aware that you represent other women. We have to be professional. You have to conduct yourself properly.” In her career, Jan has often played the debut role for women. One of her biggest fears was messing it up for the others following in her footsteps, which made her especially careful to give a good first impression on behalf of our gender. Due to this, Jan has somewhat played a pinnacle part in changing perspectives and helping to forge an inclusive zone for women in the workplace.
Residing in a marginalised group can teach us a lot about how we can aid others who are undermined by the patriarchy and subject to a lack of equality, such as the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
One of our tasks as feminists is to amplify the otherwise overlooked voices, and one simple method is to shout about how great diversity can be. Fiona’s time in Singapore brought with it a shock: “I was a minority. In fact, I found that I had been a minority earlier in my career, and didn’t realise it.” Whilst living there she was faced with the challenges of integrating with a new culture, race and language. Realising she was not the same as everyone else was vital in guiding her to adapt.
Thanks to this experience, Fiona understood the poignance of diversity and inclusion later on in her career and used this to practice empathy. “I’m passionate about women in technology and women in all those environments, but I’m equally passionate about making sure there is good diversity and everybody heard, everybody listens, because if you do that you create fantastic teams and great outcomes for all.”
It can often be easy to see fellow women as competition and fight against them rather than support each other. We have been trained through social structures to think there is less room for women to succeed, because in so many cases we have watched men take the top spot. By viewing women and non-binary people as allies, we can create more space. Helen suggested we investigate the barriers in place that prevent females from being successful. “You are a pioneer in whatever role you take, and the greatest thing is to be able to support and nurture the women who follow to develop.”
Equality is in the control of every one of us, and if we are ever going to achieve it there has to be a secure environment for conversations that include every part of the population. “We have to understand there is no way that we are going to achieve equality by excluding another group,” said Fiona.
Bravery isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us, and that’s a factor that our support system can assist us with, however there comes a time where we must be independent. Whilst being our own biggest fan can seem intimidating, it can simultaneously demonstrate our capabilities and consequently give us faith in ourselves. “Facing opportunities head-on has given me the most confidence.” Sam correlates some of the greatest career moves she has ever made with the biggest gambles she has taken. In such a small world, opportunities can arise from anywhere. Learning to say ‘no’ and not overwork yourself because you feel it’s your duty is crucial, but we also have to take the plunge and go with our gut in case saying ‘yes’ turns out to be the most amazing word we have ever said.
“Be nice, but don’t be nice because you’re a girl and you’re ‘meant’ to be nice. Be nice because you never know who anybody knows.” Margaret’s nugget of advice in this situation is potentially my favourite quote of the evening. As females, our whole lives are spent being lectured on being polite and kind and nice. Strangers tell us to ‘smile more’. Why the hell should we? Manners are brilliant, but they won’t always get us where we need to be. We have to show determination and strength, while also addressing the added pressure of actually proving we are capable. On the other hand, we have to treat every encounter as a potential business opportunity.
Jan’s take on it is simple: “As a woman, you have to be better than a man.” It’s almost laughable that this is the narrative for our current world, but where some men seem to drift through life thanks to their privileged status, we can work twice as hard yet still remain unnoticed. Jan has been sent to meet clients armed with the element of surprise that they were not expecting a woman, however this meant that to impress she had to deliver to a superior level than a man would.
Taking a risk can pay off more than we expect. Accepting the offer to work in Singapore was huge for Fiona, and she ended up there for five years, earning far more than that learning-wise. She says: “Take risks, be brave, what’s the worst that can happen? You find out you don’t like it. But actually, the enrichment and experience you get from that is really useful.”
You will always face barriers; it’s how you deal with them
It’s a fact of life that everyone will face obstructions, even if they are not directly associated with gender. For example, steeped in our society is the belief that younger generations of certain practices should have to endure the same ruthless rituals that they did. Margaret raised this point around senior doctors having undergone laborious, unhealthily long shifts as part of their education, and feel that trainee doctors should now be obliged to do the same; although she argues these traditions are starting to shift. “There will be barriers everywhere so the best thing is to think how do you get out of your own way, don’t be your own barrier, and then learn from that and think how am I going to sidestep that going forward?”
Jan provided sound wisdom on how to deal with such situations: “You will come across people who are blocking your career but they are not necessarily women. You either have to have a grown-up conversation or go to someone else.” It’s scary, but thankfully in Western society we have progressed to the stage where having conversations to rectify inappropriate behaviour are generally accepted and it is unlikely to reflect badly on the complaining party. Unfortunately, many women do still suffer from power dynamics in the workplace, and we have to back them, and women in countries where this is prevalent, as contesting it themselves may be unthinkable.
Misogyny continues to be rife, both in the office and on the streets, and shunning this is a blatant disregard for those who deal with it daily. Always one for keeping the mood light in the midst of serious topics, Sam divulged some hilarious yet distressing anecdotes to highlight some of the misogyny she has experience throughout her career. Her character sees her use humour as a coping mechanism, so this was useful in overcoming the struggles she encountered as a woman running her own business. Due to her unisex first name, many clients would call expecting to talk to a man, or when Sam answered they assumed she would pass them onto her husband. These people were usually outraged to find out she actually owned the company. It took Sam seven years to qualify as a graphic designer – longer than a vet or doctor! Initially these confrontations provoked Sam to question her achievements as a woman in a typically male digital space. That didn’t last for long, though, and in classic Sam style she transformed the circumstances and instead had a bit of fun, by playing along with the joke. “A lot of people have mistaken my kindness for weakness, so I started to use this to my advantage.”
While I still have so much to learn, I feel I am beginning to connect with who I am and make friends with that person. The insightful lessons from these women has given me direction on how to put that into practice through the work I do, the people I surround myself with, and will encourage me when I have to deal with difficult occurrences in the future. In broader terms, I am trying to identify my privilege as a white woman and use any platform and influence I have to shine the spotlight on others. While feminism has snowballed enormously since the first globally recognised International Women’s Day back in 1911 and influenced us to win us many essential rights, we are nowhere near the end.
“I just wish it was a bit further on than it is; it has moved but there is still a glass ceiling and still issues that need resolving if you’re a woman.” Jan Sawkins has witnessed the transformation of society in the length of her career, but summarises the arrogance of many people (especially men) who think the stage we are at today is sufficient. “In all seriousness you will encounter men who still haven’t moved on. There are lots of men who have, but I think what you have to realise is there are still these issues and you have to be prepared to face those issues.” We all have a pivotal role to play in ensuring all women can experience an equal world.
“The truth is we’re half of the population. And there has to be a situation where you come up and say we are not a minority, we are part of the conversation,” Margaret said. Men need to be encouraged to join us on the journey, as enforcing a more balanced world doesn’t just benefit women, but the whole of our economy and society. We all have something different to offer, and diversity is essential to make sure we can be our best selves.