Feminism isn't a dirty word

North East NCS women leaders talk gender parity in the workplace (8 March)

National Citizen Service (NCS) North East empowers the region’s young people to reach their full potential. We caught up with its top team of inspirational women this International Women’s Day, to discuss challenges females face in the world of work - and the need for bold action for gender parity. #BeBoldForChange

The quartet of leading ladies comprise V•Inspired CEO Jessica Taplin, NCS North East contract director Kim Smith, as well as Maxine Tennet, chief operating officer, and head of quality and compliance Danielle Domanski.

alt From left: Kim Smith, Jessica Taplin, Maxine Tennet, Danielle Domanski.

Q: What does feminism mean to you?

Danielle: Feminism isn’t a dirty word: it’s liberating and empowering. It’s important because it means I can live my life with confidence, being surrounded by respect. And I want that for all people – women and men!

Maxine: It’s definitely not about claiming women are better than men. It’s about allowing us to have children, maternity leave, career breaks and recognition of dependents – and not being denied opportunities or penalised in the workplace because of these things.

Jessica: Absolutely. Gender parity is at the heart of feminism – and that can only be good for us all. It’s about removing barriers that stop women and girls from fulfilling their full potential, and empowering them to make a full contribution to the world around them.

Q: The NCS North East team is sponsoring an awards event for inspirational women this week. Why is that important?

Kim: Positive female role models are vital as we strive to close the gender gap. We must also highlight how women are contributing at all levels. The Redcar Inspirational Women awards this week celebrate some of those brilliant role models – be they in business, industry, or in their local community, so we are thrilled to be able to support the initiative.

Maxine: Yes, and when gender parity is finally achieved, we won’t need to talk about inspirational women – just inspirational people. It’ll be seen as totally ordinary that females contribute and achieve as much as their male counterparts.

Q: What do you see are the top challenges facing women in the workplace?

Danielle: The lack of gender balance – particularly in senior roles – is a key challenge faced by women, because of the impact it often has on workplace policies and culture. The charitable sector is one area where we have a lot of female leaders, but we’re still under represented compared to men.

Maxine: Penetrating the ‘old boys’ networks is a particular challenge for women in the world of work. Also: females being able to be assertive without being labelled a ‘ball-breaker’ (or similar derogatory term) – yes, I’ve actually been told that!

Jessica: Every sector could benefit from greater gender diversity at the top, because more women in senior roles is great for the bottom line. Key to this is ending the everyday sexism that damages girls long before they even enter the workplace. Let’s stop negative attitudes teaching our young people to believe that leadership is a masculine trait.
Language is also key, so many times women are diminished through the use of preposterous so called female descriptors with supposedly negative connotations. I had a Trustee who once accused me of being too passionate…now I doubt that would have been said to a chap.

Q: Would a programme like NCS have helped you as a teenager?

Danielle: Definitely! I was a shy teenager, but I knew that I was capable and had something to offer. NCS would have helped me to meet new people and practice being more confident with strangers.

Kim: NCS would have helped me, too. I grew up in a small town, where just a handful of young people from my year at school went on to university. When I started at Sunderland University I for the first time got to experience independent living, meet people from different backgrounds to my own, and generally expand my horizons – all things that NCSers do at 16-17 years old!

Jessica: The great thing about NCS is that it equips young women (and men) with the confidence and so-called ‘soft skills’ which we know are vital to raising aspirations and empowering teens to achieve their potential.

Kim: Yes, and when young women step out of their comfort zones and discover new worlds of opportunities they have a powerful ripple effect on others. I was the first in my family to go to university, but my ten-year old has already declared they want to go to Oxford university!

Maxine: My teenaged daughter is doing NCS this year and I can’t wait. I am looking forward to her mixing with young people she would not usually have opportunity to spend time with, and to increase her social responsibility. It will increase her confidence and self-esteem and stand her in good stead for future experiences, work and life.

Q: What would be your advice for young women looking to progress in the world of work?

Danielle: Don’t give up. Look for creative ways to get where you need to be. Early in my career, I had a lot of short-term and part time contracts. I managed to find two roles I could work at one time, and I made a real effort to build different skills at each. This helped me show that I was flexible, had great time management skills as well as lots of transferrable skills which helped me advance in my career.

Maxine: Plan ahead, have a goal and actively work towards it. Accept that the goal might change, or circumstances will mean priorities might change, but you can ‘have it all’ - it just takes a bit of planning (and juggling!). This also applies to boys!

Jessica: There is always compromise, both men and women need to make choices about priorities and what is important to them. The challenge is that still shockingly these choices are often not choices at all, but rather enforced by circumstance and so called society norms. I believe one of the main challenges is one of perceived societal norms around childcare. There is the all too prevalent assumption that the male in a relationship should be the main breadwinner and the woman the one to child rear (a valid job in itself, by the way!) As a mother of three, ranging from one to eight-years old, I’ve had to make choices in order to get to a leadership position, but luckily I’ve supported in those by my employers, husband and other support networks. We need children to grow up knowing it’s a choice as to who looks after baby post birth and not decided by your gender.

Kim: Don’t fall for pressure to act in a way that the world classes as ‘masculine’. You don’t need this to succeed. Just be yourself. So go for it if suits and stilettos give you that bit of a boost, but remember: clothes aren’t armour. Confidence in your abilities and resilience even when things are tough are what make you a force to be reckoned with. So hold your head up high – and aim even higher.

For NCS NE International Women's Day creative responses from NCS grads, head HERE