International Women's Day - "We can dream bigger"
Today is International Women’s Day when we celebrate women’s achievements globally. It gives us the opportunity to both refocus and redouble our efforts to achieve gender equality in society and the workplace. In this blog, our Director of Finances and Estates, Tracey Simkins, talks about the progress made by women across the world, but also looks at the significant journey still to go in the pursuit of gender equity.
This blog is an edited extract of the speech I recently delivered as executive sponsor for Rethink Mental Illness’s Gender Equality Network, which is focused on accelerating the progress of women and non-dominant genders at the charity through workplace inclusion.
My family and close friends know that I’m an avid reader. I’m currently reading about the six wives of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. I have named them deliberately. Not to give you a history lesson but rather to make the point that they are often referred to in the collective and through the prism of their husband. But they were all people – women – individuals in their own right, two of whom were executed – murdered by their husband. Their perceived worth was intertwined with their value to their husband and notably their ability to produce male heirs who survived into adulthood. With the irony being two-fold a) as best we know, any inability to have sons would have rested on his biology not his wives’ and b) his daughter Elizabeth would grow up to become one of Britain’s most celebrated heads of state.
Roll on 500 odd-years - it would be wrong to say that there hasn’t been huge progress for women and, much more recently, for other non-dominant genders. We can dream bigger dreams than our predecessors, in large part due to the ceilings they broke through. But we know that such progress is fragile. The damning statistics set out below starkly highlight the inequitable experiences still faced by women in society and workplaces:
- Great Britain is ranked only 23rdon the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2022. Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, France, Germany and Spain fared better.
- Women make up only 6% of CEOs of FTSE 100 companies.
- Only 35% of Civil Service Permanent Secretaries are women and none are from Black or other ethnic minority backgrounds.
- The Trades Union Congress found that over 1 in 2 women are sexually harassed in the workplace and half of those who had experienced sexual harassment said they were subjected to unwelcome sexual jokes in the workplace more than six times in their lives.
- And violence. In 2018, 149 women were killed by 147 men.
It goes on and on. Discrimination in the workplace and beyond. And then I think about the barriers, prejudice and, frankly, the out-and-out misogyny and prejudice I’ve experienced in my own career journey:
- At the outset of my career, clients would often refer to my age and inexperience. Male colleagues, the same age, never faced the same comments.
- There were comments on my appearance and/or attire, comments again that were not made to male colleagues.
- Being the only woman present at important meetings and finding myself, at best, not heard and at worst, shouted down.
- Witnessing a rapid culture change with the arrival of toxic CIS males, from a working environment that felt supportive and safe for women to one in which they had no choice but to leave.
- Absorbing more responsibility, but unlike male counterparts this not being reflected in my job title.
I now work at Rethink Mental Illness and I can honestly say that this is best environment I’ve worked in. I am part of an amazing Executive team who both empower and support me, give me the space to work, and encourage me to develop and take on new opportunities. This experience should be the same for not only everyone at the charity, but any women in the workplace.
Rethink Mental Illness is on the right course, but we must safeguard against slippage. We must continue to make progress on unpicking structures, like pay and rewards, which unintentionally perpetuate systemic discrimination. And we must always be vigilant. When we hear of institutional misogyny, we often hear the refrain of ‘bad apples’ and in some organisations it feels like half the tree is rotten. Thankfully, that’s not the case at Rethink Mental Illness. But we know that one ‘bad apple’ is one too many, we are clear that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. However, I recognise that what will be more difficult to challenge is the subtle, less immediate discrimination that can take hold in any organisation. This often presents itself in more nuanced ways like fewer opportunities and higher incidences of burnout where women are concerned.
Like many women, I’m not particularly good at celebrating success. But in writing this blog and thinking about where I am now, I realise how much I’ve overcome. I am proud of what I’ve achieved. Looking ahead, I will use my privilege as a senior leader to ensure that Rethink Mental Illness puts equity at the heart of everything we say and do to shape a workplace that is achieving gender parity and with joint accountability with the engagement of our male colleagues. But today, let’s all reflect on and celebrate the incredible progress women have made in societies and workplaces around the world.
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