What does IWD mean to you?

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge and for me this is fundamentally what IWD is all about. There is no doubt that women have made significant strides in society over the last few decades, particularly within the world of work. They have done so by constantly challenging the prevailing misconceptions about their intellectual and physical capabilities. Of course, challenge can take on many forms. Many of us can picture the Suffragettes, often risking their lives, challenging the right to vote. Or the female workers at Ford Motor Company, who brought car production at Dagenham to a standstill, challenging the right to equal pay. But challenge doesn’t necessarily always have to be a fight. I like to think about those women who have perhaps more quietly challenged the perceptions of others. How did they achieve that? By simply being exceptionally good at what they did, often in a male-dominated environment. For example, the female code breakers at Bletchley Park during WW2 and Dame Steve Shirley, an early pioneer of information technology. In short, we should all #ChooseToChallenge, calling out gender bias and inequality where it exists. But we should also seek to shine a light on the achievements of women, to be the best we can be, and help to create a more inclusive world.

You have been instrumental in developing the IWD Careers and Networking Event at Eltham College.  How important is it to start this conversation in Schools and Colleges and do you feel enough is currently being done to challenge stereotypes and broaden perceptions?

We are extremely fortunate to have some amazing role models for current students among our OE community. In recent years, we have hosted IWD events in school whereby female Elthamians have shared their career journeys with current students, as well as offer advice and provide insights about their personal experiences of life beyond Eltham College. Although the event is aligned to IWD, I have always sought to encourage boys to attend as well, not just because it helps them build their knowledge about a particular career pathway, but importantly it helps to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about the roles women go on to secure. Of course, this works both ways, and it’s equally important for girls to recognise that they can become engineers or airline pilots by meeting the women who have done just that.

A lot of work has been done in recent years to challenge workplace stereotypes, particularly in relation to the STEM sector. I have certainly seen a shift towards more young women considering a future career within engineering for example, and now we are fully co-educational, with our girls becoming involved with STEM activities much earlier through the incredible variety of clubs and societies the school has to offer, these numbers will surely only increase.

What are the most effective ways to counteract the negative stereotypes of gender equality in the workplace?

This is a very big question and if there was an easy answer, the problem would have been solved years ago! Being good at what you do should be enough, however there are many who would argue that as a woman, you need to be better than your male counterpart to achieve the same recognition. I do believe progress is being made, but this work needs to start early in schools, even Junior School, with gender stereotypes being challenged at every opportunity. The move to full co-education at Eltham College is a highly positive step in this regard – there is nothing like seeing a girl as your equal (or better) when she achieves a higher score than you in a Maths test!

I recognise that as a parent, I also have an important part to play in challenging stereotypes. I have always sought to be a good role model for my own daughters, both in terms of the way in which I have approached my career (which has always been extremely important to me), but also in how my husband and I shared the responsibility of caring for them when they were younger, both making compromises in our careers to do so.

Why do you think women are still yet to receive equality in pay – despite legislation in place?

Again, a hugely complex area and one with which many organisations continue to grapple. Historically, I think there are lots of reasons for pay inequality, including the fact that many women will take career breaks to have children or look after elderly relatives, often returning to work on a part-time basis. It is also the case that traditionally women are employed in lower paid jobs, reducing their average income when compared to men. Nevertheless, there can be no excuse for lesser pay when a woman is employed to do exactly the same job as a man, for example the pay scandal in which the BBC found itself recently embroiled. It is notable, although not surprising, that in this instance it was a woman, the BBC’s China Editor Carrie Gracie, who ‘chose to challenge’ the status quo, finally leading to a move towards equal pay within the corporation.

As a side note, I do think there will be a significant shift in the way we work as a result of the pandemic which, in turn, will benefit women in the workplace. Many jobs that traditionally involved a five-day commute to the office will now be undertaken, to a large degree, at home. This is a game-changer for women, and men, particularly those with a caring role. Why? Because it will open-up new career opportunities, as well as providing the kind of work-life balance and sharing of responsibilities, that were previously not an option.

What can men do to help to achieve equality in the workplace?  How is this happening in a progressive workplace such as Eltham College?

The answer to that is pretty simple – they need to treat women as their equals! In a workplace such as Eltham College, it is evident that people are recruited, retained and rewarded purely on the basis of their ability to do the job. There is a strong culture of professionalism and respect among all staff, driven by the Senior Leadership Team (which is happily made up of men and women). Nevertheless, it is very important for any employer to create an environment in which people feel they can call out gender bias or inequality where they see it – only by tackling issues as they arise will anything change.

How have you personally progressed and succeeded in the work environment?

I’d like to think the answer to that question is I have worked hard and been good at what I do. On reflection, at times, I think I might have worked too hard, especially in the early part of my career when I became embroiled in the unhealthy long hours culture of the industry in which I worked at the time. I have always tried to be open to opportunity and embrace the importance of life-long learning. Indeed, it was the decision to embark upon a Master’s degree just a few years ago that led me to the role I do now, which I truly love. However, when it comes to success, I do think it’s important that we all take the time to consider what that means to us at different stages in our career. Only by aligning our values, aspirations, self-identity and priorities to the job we do (all of which will inevitably change over time) can we achieve true “career happiness”.

What key piece of advice would you give to our current Sixth Form students?

As a careers practitioner, I usually steer away from offering advice per se as it always feels rather directive and counter to the self-determinate principles of careers guidance! However, since you’ve asked, the single piece of advice I would offer to all young people is to ensure that the decisions you make are informed and based upon what you enjoy. If you love what you do, you will find your way in life. And to young women in particular, I would say climbing the career ladder is not the only route to the top – carve your own path.