#IWD2019: Give girls support and they will fly

It is so important to give girls the feeling and knowledge that they can do anything. This is how we create social change, says Rebecca O’Donnell

Earlier this year, I attended a talk at Coram’s Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury in Central London.  The talk and panel discussion by Cressida Dick and Jenny Coles was titled “Inspiring Women: Creating Social Change”, however, the majority of the discussion centred on their journeys to being female leaders.

The Foundling Hospital, where the talk took place, was founded in 1739 by Thomas Coram. It was the first place that took care of abandoned children – the first children’s charity really. Coram had originally struggled to get support for his hospital until he enlisted the help of 21 ladies of “quality and distinction” from the royal court.

The room where the talk took place contained several portraits of these ladies, duchesses and countesses, pictured in their fine clothes. These ladies were considered “right thinking” for their time but what they would have made of the spectacle of a room full of (mostly) women listening to two distinguished women speakers is something to reflect on.

After an introduction by Coram’s CEO Dr Carol Homden Cressida Dick took to the lectern to speak about her path to Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.  Her opening words paid tribute to her parents and their encouragement that she could do whatever her older brother did. Nothing was out of her grasp because she was a girl. This has been an important influence on her life, and it was also echoed by Jenny Coles the other speaker in her talk.

As Cressida Dick described her rise through the ranks of the Met she talked about the power of women’s networks and mentorships from both male and female senior colleagues. When she became a Chief Inspector she was able to access a support network of women of equal or senior rank who supported each other with advice and a place to bounce ideas around. There were relatively few of them in comparison to today and they were all able to meet together easily. Having the support from this group helped her move forward in her career.

Now, 100 years after the first women were admitted to the Metropolitan Police there are more women than ever in the service. The Met aspires to a 50/50 male/female ratio at all ranks and disciplines. At the moment they are 70/30 at constable level, about 72/28 at sergeant and 75/25 at all higher ranks.

Jenny Coles spoke next and some of her experiences were very similar to Cressida’s. She had also benefited from mentors both male and female and within and outside of the organisations she was working for. Her experiences have led her to promote the idea of identifying your values and ensuring you stick to those throughout your career using them as a sort of anchor. We should build on our strengths alongside this and not shy away from the difficult situations or conversations.

One thing that particularly struck me was her statement that we are all leaders at whatever level we are working in or whatever we are doing. If we are contributing in some way we are demonstrating our knowledge or experience or expertise. This is a form of leadership. We may not be actually leading that team or business, but we are showing our ability and if one other person sees this then we are potentially leading them in relation to that thing.

Jenny also spoke about developing in to your position. It is a commonly held view that a woman may decide not to apply for a job if she can’t tick every line on the job description, but a man will apply if he thinks he can do a couple of the items on the list. We must recognise that we can develop in to a leadership position and that we can work out the steps we need to take to achieve that position and we must ask for development in those areas.

This was discussed further in the panel section of the evening where questions were taken from the audience covering visibility, finding your replacement and creating a culture where mentoring and coaching is available where it is asked for.

Being visible and finding your replacement and giving them your support are two things that everyone can work on. Looking back at what the Commissioner said about giving girls the feeling that they can do anything is I think the most important take away for me from this talk.

At the end of the evening Carol Homden quoted Barack Obama, saying: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Rebecca O’Donnell is a senior commercial manager in facilities management