This year, International Women’s Day is calling for a better-balanced world - pushing for an equal gender balance in all areas from governments to media coverage to the workplace. We take tips from five powerful women in development on what we can do to push for a better balanced workplace.
According to research, the gender imbalance in many workplaces does not just affect women but also has an impact on the outcome of businesses.
Organisations require a gender balance for both economies and communities to thrive, however, in many workplaces women are significantly under-represented. For example, a CEO of one of London’s biggest 100 businesses are just as likely to be called Dave as they are to be a woman... not exactly a great start.
Collective action and shared responsibility for driving a gender-balanced world are essential. As the feminist activist Gloria Steinem highlighted:
"The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
So, in the light of working together, we asked five powerful women for their advice on how to #BalanceforBetter in the workplace.
Freda Nyame - Founder and Director of IYAN Africa
Former ICS team leader, Freda, wholeheartedly supports this year’s theme of #BalanceforBetter for International Women’s Day and explains the obstacles that she has faced over the years due to her gender.
“Coming from an African country like Ghana, there are lots of challenges that we face as women. As a young female you are sacrificing a lot and most people think that we can’t make it,” she said.
Freda grew up doubting her own confidence and did not discover her natural ability to lead until she became an ICS team leader in her home country and found the push she needed to take control.
“Being an ICS team leader was a turning point for me because it made me realise so many things. I think that was the moment where I understood I had to grow up because I had a lot of responsibility on me to support the local community, fellow volunteers and myself,” she added.
Since her placement, Freda has continued to make incredible progress in the development sector through founding and directing her own NGO, Inspiring Young Achievers Network (IYAN) Africa, which has reached and supported 11,000 people in Ghana through providing educational supplies and infrastructure.
So, what advice would Freda give to young women in the workplace?
“You should be willing to forgo any challenge and take opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re ready or if it scares you. I took that opportunity, I took that leap of faith even though I didn’t know how far I would go, even though I face a lot of challenges. I took that leap of faith and it’s worked out brilliantly.”
Shahema Miah - Founder of online platform, A Women’s Wish
Following her ICS placement in Ghana, Shahema and her friend Kasi felt inspired to continue working in development and share the lessons learnt. As well as working and studying, they founded A Women’s Wish - a space for women to share stories, empower each other and overcome challenges.
“As women we’re really underrated, and we don’t get enough exposure so we wanted to be able to create this platform to share stories to inspire others.”
Since coming back from her placement and founding A Women’s Wish with Kasi, Shahema is starting a new job at The British Red Cross, where she will deliver crisis education on the anti-stigmatisation of refugees and migrants.
Having found a job in the charity sector like she hoped, she said that the key for young women pursuing a career in development is “to never give up really and to be positive. It’s a matter of persevering and not feeling down when you get rejected from a job interview. Keep going and know that you’re on this path for a reason and you’ll find something that you want to do.”
Felicity Morgan - ICS Director
As the director of ICS, Felicity is responsible for the overall strategy of the youth volunteering scheme, which includes ensuring that people from all backgrounds can take part.
“Workplaces that are mixed and inclusive are more vibrant and more enjoyable places to work. I’ve always been a big supporter of having a mix of people in teams because I think that’s when you get a range of opinions and voices heard. If you have a workplace or team with just one type of person or one set of opinions it can become very rigid and dull,” she said.
For Felicity, women can often face obstacles in the workplace at more senior levels but the way to avoid this is through taking risks, being yourself and working hard.
“Take risks because you’ll only regret what you didn't do, you’ll never regret what you did do. You've also got to be true to yourself. You’ll only be happy in the workplace if you’re being true to who you are. Hopefully, people will recognise that and, if they don’t, it may be time to find another path.”
Julia Lalla-Maharajh - Founder of the Orchid Project
Following an 18-year career in the corporate sector, Julia came back from a VSO placement in Ethiopia and became motivated to set up the Orchid Project to help tackle female genital cutting across the world. Although her career in development was not a straightforward one, she has made a name for herself by supporting hundreds of communities to choose to end the practice, as well as persuade DFID to invest over £50 million for ending the practice.
Reflecting on this year’s theme of #BalanceforBetter, Julia recommends the book Half The Sky by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof in order to encourage and support women worldwide.
“Women literally hold up half the sky and if we’re not reflecting that in everything we do, whether that’s in parliament, work or childcare, we are not representing our population fully. Simply on a representation level, we’ve waited millennia to get to the point where we can get equal representation for gender and the fact that in 2019, we’re still pushing for gender parity shows how much more we’ve got to do,” Julia said.
“I’ve worked in everything, from the most horrendous sexist environments through to now an organisation where we’re much more cognizant and open so before starting a job it’s really important to check out the corporate culture.”
“Never be afraid to call out behaviour that you find unacceptable. Be bold and believe in yourself - the world needs incredible, kickass women.”
Stacey Adams - CEO of Raleigh International
Having been the CEO of Raleigh International for over 12 years, Stacey understands the importance of a balanced workplace and has carried out many changes to ensure a variety of voices within the organisation.
“I’ve recruited young people onto the board, so we have a much clearer voice of young people within the organisation and that’s been a real priority for us,” Stacey explained.
“Young people can drive change at a local level and a community level, own changes in their lives, long term globally, so it’s really about harnessing the potential of young people as partners and leaders in development and making sure we create effective change at a grassroots level in communities.”
And in terms of the young women who would like to pursue a career in development but might struggle to have their voices heard, Stacey emphasises the importance of self-confidence and how far it can take you.
“I think for most part for women, the main concern is often around believing in themselves. There’s good research that shows if women see a job specification and she can do 60% of the role, she’ll say ‘I can only do 60%’, whereas a man will be saying ‘I can do 60% - great I can apply for that!’. These are two very different perspectives so it’s very important for women to be their own best advocates and be confident about what you know.”
What do you think about equality in the workplace? Tell us in the comments below!