Is the Workplace Doing Enough for Women?
"The only qualifications that count are from university," are the words my manager said to me when I admitted I’d lost my A-level certificates and wouldn’t be able to complete my HR records. The dismissal was unintentional but, at 21 years old, it brought up my pretty-fresh shame of not going to university at 18 when all my friends did.
From the age of 21 to 28 I worked in the defence industry, very much a male-dominated environment. I was almost always the only woman in the room, and the female colleagues I had worked mostly in administration, like me. Soon, I found myself stuck in an ‘admin hole’ where, even when I was acting as a technical assistant, I would be asked to take minutes or find out why there weren't biscuits in the room. This desire for progress prompted me to return to study aged 22 and complete a business degree online alongside my full-time job.
I hoped it would give me new skills and knowledge and open up opportunities for my career. And for a while, it worked. I was able to secure a promotion by highlighting the ways my newfound skills and knowledge could improve the company. My degree gave me the confidence to speak up and share my ideas at work - even if they weren’t always listened to. I knew my worth and how to ask for more training and opportunities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in an environment that rewarded this with progression and, despite the initial career boost from my degree, I became stuck with no opportunities for growth.
So, I decided to explore entrepreneurship and at the end of 2018, I left my job to work for myself. I now run my own business where I teach non-traditional students how to study effectively so they can achieve the grades they need to progress their careers or start a new one.
My advice to those of you feeling undervalued at work...
- Push back if you're interrupted in a meeting, and/or ask a trusted colleague to back you up.
- Talk to your manager/HR department about opportunities for progression such as training or mentoring.
- Upskill yourself so you can put yourself forward for a promotion, switch company or start a new career (this can be done formally via a degree/professional qualification, or informally by reading books and taking online courses).
- Set up a side-hustle or become a full-time entrepreneur. You'll be in good company: 34% of UK SMEs are female-led compared to 17% in 2017 (Paymentsense, 2019).
I eventually settled on the last point. Almost all of my clients are women and 80% of them are mothers who want to re-enter the workforce. While some mothers take only a short career break, a large number either take a number of years out to raise their children, or they continue to work – but don’t actively seek promotions or change careers.
Therefore, working mothers lose out on years of experience compared to professionals who don’t have children or who are not the primary caregiver for their children. As well as the time out, years without training can leave working mothers downskilled: lacking the skills needed by companies today.
Creating inclusive workplaces where all women, including working mothers, can progress is vital; and the responsibility for this lies in organizations themselves, and in government legislation. Equally important is for women to create their own opportunities and increase their own desirability in the workforce.
For International Women’s Day, it’s important to celebrate the progress we’ve made. But gender equality won’t happen tomorrow so we have to keep pushing forward which is why I advocate for dual responsibility. A woman by herself cannot alter traditional gender roles or change the culture and practices of every workplace. But a woman by herself can develop herself to make her own opportunities.
This International Women’s Day, and every day after, I’ll be taking action for equality by continuing to grow a female-founded company, and by supporting women looking to upskill themselves so they can uplevel their careers and create their own opportunities.