Hi ladies! First things first: what’s the best piece of advice you’ve had from a woman?
Julie: I was incredibly close to my paternal Granny, a larger than life, incredible tour-de-force Yorkshire woman. She loved to talk to strangers, make people laugh, tell a mucky joke and drink red wine. One Christmas I bought her 50 Shades of Grey and two bottles of Merlot.
Wow – what a wild night in that must have been!
Julie: She said it was her favourite gift that year! She taught me the most was generosity of spirit and to not take yourself too seriously. When you were with her, she gave you her full beam of sunshine. I’ve tried to embrace that approach through life; create moments of humour (it’s ok for work to be a fun place!) and give people my full attention – it’s important to be in that moment with them. Also that the odd plate of chips or glass of red wine won’t do you any harm – she lived until she was 93!
Karen: You see people in business and think “Wow, I wish I was more like them – they know how to speak at a conference or tell a compelling story or command a room.” I always felt there were areas of leadership that I was just rubbish at; I felt like a fraud.
The best advice I was given was from Cathy Ferguson. Cathy has worked with Centrepoint on leadership programmes. She said a lot of things (and if you know Cathy, you’ll be smiling at this point), but what really resonated with me was that good strong leadership comes from authenticity. Grow and develop the strengths and talents within you and do not try to emulate what you think leadership should be.
Sally: The best advice came from my mom – she said “Always do one more thing every day than you think you can do – that one thing will make a difference. I try to live by that mantra every day!
Balbir: When I was in my twenties, I worked on a project for young women – Anita was one of the women in charge. She was South Asian, and I just thought, “Wow – it’s possible.” It was a real eye-opener; I remember her saying “I know we have to try 10 times as hard, I know that, but we got to make sure we do something about it when we’re in charge, so we don’t perpetuate it.” I was 25 and she was a real role model to me – I tell her that even now!
What’s one thing you would tell your younger self?
Sally: Stay away from bad men!
That’s great advice!
Sally: And be more ambitious and push hard for the things you want to do, of course.
Karen: This might sound a little trite, but it’s so powerful and women tend to not believe it: you are enough. No, you’re not perfect, and you won’t always get it right, but you’re doing an amazing job. Your personal values of fairness, honesty, and inclusivity drive you in the right direction.
Julie: Not to take feedback too personally. There was definitely a time where I would internalise feedback and feel like it was an attack on my values or who I was as a person. In my early 30s, I was lucky enough to be part of an Action Learning Set facilitated by a wonderful woman named Gin (genuinely her name!). She gave me lots of tools and techniques to help me see feedback as changes to make in my actions or approach – that it didn’t make me a bad person. Hearing feedback is a critical part of growth and becoming stronger in your role. I really value those tools and can now make sure I’m integrating the changes in a positive way.
Is there a time where you felt like you were held back because you were a woman? How did you combat that?
Julie: I think there have been times when I’ve held myself back. As women, we frequently have a conditioned mindset that means we’re not always comfortable confident in holding positions of authority or admitting the things we’re good at. When I first stepped up into a Head role nine years ago, I would make self-depreciating comments when people congratulated me on my new post. I had a huge sense of imposter syndrome and wasn’t confident in saying, “I’m good at what I do and I deserve to be in this senior post.” Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work to feel more comfortable with admitting my strengths, although there can still be that voice of doubt sometimes when I say it – gender expectations are tough to re-condition!
Sally: I worked for a large corporate where the senior team were mainly men. I always felt there was a glass ceiling – it was like no matter how hard you worked or whether you could prove you a great leader, you just wouldn’t get a seat at the table. It made me more determined and pushed me to do even better.
Balbir: I was on secondment at the Department of Education in my mid 30s; I was a team leader of around five. One of the senior officers and I were due in a meeting at the Home Office. When we got to the meeting – which was with two men – they just assumed the senior officer was the leader of the team. He was a white man. All the eye contact was with him – it’s like I was invisible. I had to let them know that I was the team leader, and that I was bringing a lot of expertise to the role. I can’t say, “How dare you ignore me,” but I had to let them know. I wasn’t just there to take notes!
Did the senior officer with you not say anything?
Balbir: No – I found out afterwards that he thought he should have got the role I was in!
Balbir, what is your experience of being a woman of colour in leadership? What barriers have you come up against and how did you fight them?
Balbir: When I first started working, there were very few people at work events that weren’t white. Every time you walked into a meeting or conference, you’d be taking a few deep breaths, preparing yourself. Put your mask on, act like you belong there. Trying to break into those cliques of people with their drinks, who all know each other and look like each other – it’s hard.
I remember a director general at the DfE had gathered a group of people to talk about young people in education, and I was the only person in the room who wasn’t white – it was 80% white men. We had some presentations and mingling, and it was so hard to get anyone to speak to me. It was only when we sat down for a session, and the director general made sure to sit next to me and ask me for my opinion, that people started talking to me. I felt really angry that I had to have the ‘endorsement’ of the director general. You just feel invisible, useless – like an imposter. Then there’s part of you that’s just seething – what do I have to do to be accepted, never mind valued?
What’s the best piece of advice you would give to women in business?
Sally: Don’t be afraid to have ambitious goals. Live your dreams and don’t let anything or anyone push you off your path.
Julie: Don’t hold onto ideas of where you should be in your career or what you should have achieved by a certain age. The younger version of you couldn’t have predicted the opportunities and obstacles you’ve experienced. There’s been two points in my career where I’ve had to interview over 10 times to get my next step. Looking back, each rejection, every piece of feedback helped me to be in the right place, with the right mind set and the right tools to get the right job for what I wanted to achieve in my career.
Karen: Be fearlessly unapologetically you – don’t try and emulate others, just be the best version of you.
Balbir: When I was banging my head against a racist and sexist culture at DfE, my Black, female director pulled me into her office, kicked off her high heels and told me to push even harder otherwise nothing would change. I loved working with her because she had her own style and didn’t change it for anyone.
And finally, why is International Women’s Day important to you?
Karen: It showcases the extraordinary achievements of women whilst also representing the struggle many have faced to get there.
Julie: Even though I’ve worked hard to get to Director level, I still feel incredibly privileged to be here. I take my responsibility as a female leader incredibly seriously and want to be a positive role model that helps raise women up and support them in any way I can. I would love a world where a different style of female leadership is the norm and traits of compassion and nurture are valued. International Women’s Day is important to me because it’s a day we can stop and stand together in sisterhood!