I recently became aware of The
Girls’ Network, a brilliant national charity that was established and is
operated by a number of exceptional women. Their aim is to inspire and
empower girls from the least advantaged communities (if you do nothing
else to mark IWD then do learn more about them here).
week, the Network asked me to participate in a workshop they were
running for groups of Year 11 girls from different schools across the
region and to swap my professional experiences with their ideas about
career pathways and choices. I’d been told that (most of) the girls
found these sorts of workshops valuable, a point reinforced by the fact
that they’d taken a small group of girls into London and been shocked
when one asked “why is the woman over there wearing a suit?” In 2012
this teenage girl couldn’t see in what possible context a woman may
choose to wear a suit.
The girls at the workshop I met were
intelligent and considered, but what struck me was the emergence of
similar themes that I’ve encountered multiple times when working with
young people as part of Further My Future’s efforts. In all too many
cases a triple whammy of partial awareness, limited vocabulary and low
levels of confidence seem to impede the ambition and potential of our
youth. Those that are aware of what they could choose to be (and in my
experience these are the minority) don’t always have the vocabulary to
adequately voice that choice, and those that do often lack the
confidence to voice it sufficiently so that they are properly heard.
also struck me that I was about 25 years older than most of the young
women I’d met that day. I began to consider how much of what we’d
discussed I’d only really learned in the past 15 years, and what may
have been different if I’d had learned those lessons sooner. It struck
me that though 25 years had passed, their professional
concerns/awareness/confusion echoed my own at their age. That in 25
years so much has changed for young women, but so little has changed
Confidence is an
interesting issue for women. Many of the young girls and women I’ve
worked with admit to lacking it. Women are routinely flung between lazy,
routine media pieces about the need to “have it all” or conquering
imposter syndrome. The subtext being that if you don’t have one you must
have the other. Underpinning both of course is the confidence to know
what you want and to know you’re good enough. (Note: it’s also helped by
not being judged on whether or not you’ve got an amazing career, a
doting husband, two perfect children, a home to which Kevin McCloud
would want to drop by and visit at any moment, a size 6 wardrobe, a
clean-eating diet, devotion to your hot yoga classes and, my personal
favourite, endless ‘pins’ that you can routinely ‘flaunt’.)
with a brilliant team. The youngest member is a whip-smart 20-year-old
woman who routinely pulls me up on any potential cringeworthy behaviour.
I’ve watched her professional confidence develop in the past six months
and it’s been a real privilege to do so. A while ago I asked her what
she felt promoted confidence and her answer was experience. This of
course is valid. The more you do something then the more knowledge and
therefore confidence you acquire in respect to it. But what happens if
you’ve not done something before, what happens to confidence when
experience is lacking?
This is something that I think all women
can identify with. There’s a frequently cited claim that women only
apply for roles when they possess 100% of the requirements outlined in
the job description, whereas men are typically happy to apply if they
possess 80% of the requirements. There are many reasons why so many
glass ceilings are still to be shattered, but might they be smashed far
sooner if we can use confidence-building in our young women as a tool
with which to redress the balance that leaves the female workforce
inequitably engineered to shrink dramatically at school-leaving (you may
not be able to do that job), maternity-leaving (you may need to catch
up) and child-rearing (you may need to behave like you haven’t got
children in the workplace and you haven’t got a job at home) ages?
been lucky to benefit from the wisdom, guidance and support of two
significant professional mentors. At different periods of my career,
each was able to see potential and ability that I failed to see in
myself. With their counsel I accepted job offers that, at the time, I
felt I lacked the perfect experience and professional toolkit to assume.
mentors couldn’t give me confidence — with time only I’ve been able to
achieve this — but I now realise that they did provide me with was
courage, and the ability to step forward without knowing exactly what
may happen next. If we can’t immediately promote confidence in our young
women then we can promote courage in the hope that it delivers
experience; and that this experience will ultimately deliver confidence.
courage to act, though, risks failure. In an environment where the
demands and pressures on women are high, fear of failure can breed
inertia at best and crippling debilitation at worst.
something I’d previously felt (not just professionally) was not an
option. I’d taken a hard line: pass/fail, good/bad,
successful/unsuccessful. This line of thinking was idiotic, though. It’s
an exclusive approach rather than an inclusive one. It was also
delusional. Hindsight has allowed me to view failure as neither bad nor
unsuccessful, but simply an additional, often necessary, step in your
In practice I’m failing all the time. In
each senior role I’ve had I’ve made mistakes. I held the courage to take
the role, the responsibility and the decisions. But sometimes I got it
wrong. And I knew when I did. Sometimes others thought I got it wrong.
And I knew when they did (some told me, others trolled me). Getting it
wrong felt like catastrophic failure, which became a stick with which I
used (or allowed others to use) to beat down my confidence repeatedly.
If nothing else it was brilliant resilience training.
It took time
and perspective before I saw that failing sometimes is to be
celebrated. Failing sometimes means that courage is in force; that
you’re stepping forward and seeing what happens. It also enriches your
experience and judgement. In collecting positive/successful experiences
as well as negative/failing ones then you learn more. Failure isn’t
something to be ignored, it’s something to recognise as inevitable if
you’re venturing into the unknown. The trick is to learn how to channel
it positively and recognise it swiftly.
courage and failure builds experience and in turn confidence, it takes a
bucket-load of confidence to quieten the voice of the inner critic.
Your worst enemy. Constantly telling you what you could/should be, never
accepting the status quo, rarely congratulatory, routinely demanding
that the bar be raised. She’s hard work and zero fun.
promotes moments of quiet from her noise is acceptance and authenticity.
In a professional context I don’t think many people aim to be or
believe they are inauthentic. In my direct experience, I think for women
in senior roles there’s an interesting relationship between
authenticity and strength. More specifically, that in order to be a
successful woman you need to be a strong one, regardless of whether you
are or not.
In truth I think there are occasions when we each feel
strong and occasions where we feel our vulnerabilities leave us
exposed. For me, and it’s not a view everyone shares, the ability to be
professionally authentic is the ability to allow others to see and know
you (not the you you want to project), to recognise what you bring and
accept what you don’t yet bring. And to take comfort in the fact that
none of us is perfect.
For me this one is a work in progress, and
requires a daily check-in. When I get it right I’ve found that it
underpins all that is and has been good to and for me.
So to my
confused, clueless 16-year-old-terrible-hair terrible-teeth self: take
courage, do not fear failure, seek and embrace experience in the pursuit
of confidence and allow the confidence you develop to promote your
authentic self. You will do things others said you couldn’t, shouldn’t
or wouldn’t and you will find a love in continuing to do such things.
Reclaim these words, allow them to underpin your actions because you,
like every young person, deserve the opportunity to #BeSomething.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I asked a number of brilliant
women, all of whom have achieved significant professional successes, to
tell me what they wish they could have told their 16-year-old self. The
responses were superb, honest, inspirational, and a reminder of still
how much there is to do for young women.
I’d intended to be a handful of quotes to support this piece instead
became a small anthology I’d like to evolve for young women to access.
You can read their responses below.