Women into Leadership: a year in review

Thu 23 Jan 2020

Women into Leadership: a year in review

2019 saw 7 brilliant Women into Leadership conferences take place across the UK. Before kicking off the 2020 events in Cardiff next month, we have taken some time to summarise the key learning points from 2019, the major areas of growth and the stubborn challenges which persist. Speakers and delegates alike offered so much insight into the highs and lows which come with being senior leaders, both within and outside the civil service. From the major triumphs and achievements to the sacrifices and struggles, the experiences shared have been diverse and exceptional.

In this vein, our annual review of Women into Leadership highlights some positive progress, as well as the consistent barriers which have arisen for women in (and pursuing) leadership.

Inspiring positive change: creating a culture of ownership and inclusion

This topic was given to each Permanent Secretary tackling the opening addresses across the Women into Leadership conferences in 2019, creating excellent discussion points to kick off the day.

Their messages were consistent, even if their approaches to leadership varied. To reach the upper echelons of the civil service, one must strive to be authentic, tolerant, patient and principled. Progress is not made overnight- it takes commitment and persistence and cannot be enforced from the top down. For real progress to be realised, everyone must be involved in the conversation, and crucially, women who achieve success must hold the ladder down for those who come after them. Engaging men in the conversation was a point raised consistently, reinforcing the message that the realisation of gender equality, within the civil service and more widely, requires commitment from all.

Impostor syndrome: our biggest obstacle?

When ‘impostor syndrome’ was suggested as a new breakout session theme at last year’s Women into Leadership planning group, we could not have foreseen the overwhelming response to the addition of this topic to the 2019 agendas. At every location, between 60% and 70% of the audience elected to attend further training on ‘impostor syndrome’, self-identifying this phenomenon as one of the biggest barriers to their progression.

Impostor syndrome – originally defined in 1978, as when “despite outstanding accomplishments, women [persist] in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” disproportionately affects women. Coaches at the conferences outlined that almost 70% of women say they have experienced it, compared to under 50% of men. A result, many argue, of a world not designed for women to flourish, eliciting self-doubt and confidence crises.

Safe to say, the topic will remain on the agenda for 2020, but we hope, perhaps, to see a decrease in popularity over the coming years. Delegates reported that the training they received at the conference gave them heightened awareness and practical tools they can arm themselves with going forwards. The sessions focused on building resilience, prioritising wellbeing, seeking mentors and keeping a log of accomplishments. We’re keen to see how delegates have found putting these tips into practice and will be running follow up sessions at the 2020 events.

 ‘Isn’t gender equality done?’ Collaboration as key to overcoming the perception-reality gap

‘Isn’t gender equality done?’ We posed this question to delegates in London. An interesting discussion followed. Through findings presented by Jason Ghaboos and consequent Q&A, we established that overcoming a perception-reality gap is a significant and necessary step if meaningful progress on gender equality and inclusion is to be achieved in the workplace.

Evidently there is still some distance to travel. The lived experience of women in the workplace is still not fully recognised, which is itself the first step towards real and lasting change. Discussions at last year’s conferences recognised that men and women are yet to reach mutual recognition of their roles in realising gender inclusion in the workplace. As Ghaboos outlined, efforts in changing this will inevitably meet some resistance. However, it is for that very reason that encouraging collaboration is vital.

Leading from the middle: developing presence and impact at any grade

This popular session focused on the skills, behaviours and awareness needed to make an impact from our current positions, highlighting that seniority in itself does not denote leadership capability. Throughout the year we looked at innovative and personalised approaches to improving professional effectiveness, focusing on how we think and act when seeking to influence others. Delegates largely agreed that transformation and lasting change can be achieved at any grade, and such initiatives as reverse mentoring, staff networks and participation in platforms such as WiL were all ways to ‘lead from the middle’ and develop the presence and confidence to enact change. 

Menopause in the workplace: seeking support and opening up the conversation

Menopause affects 50% of the working population for between 4 and 12 years of their working lives and, unlike in previous generations, approximately one third of working life is now remaining once menopause passes.

Our breakout sessions on seeking support and opening up the conversation around the menopause proved to be incredibly popular and instigated some really important dialog. As trainers outlined, the average age of the menopause in the UK is 51 years, which is often an age when women have more senior (and stressful) posts. These positions can be difficult enough to juggle around family life, without the added pressure of having to cope with menopausal symptoms too. Delegates felt largely unprepared for the onset of the menopause and even less equipped to manage its symptoms at work. They also noted that they tended not to disclose their symptoms to their manager.

This needs to change, if meaningful progress is to be made and women are to continue flourishing in their careers as they age.

2020 and beyond

As this summary demonstrates, we’ve covered lots of new ground in 2019 and are excited to continue the conversation into 2020 and beyond. Challenges persist around engaging men as allies, overcoming impostor syndrome and opening up confident conversations around the menopause. On the flip side, we've seen meaningful progress around inspring positive change, and recognising our own unique roles in championing inclusion. We've recognised that leadership skills do not come via promotions or external recognition. We can all lead 'from the middle', or wherever we find ourselves in our career journeys, and have learned about the valuable tools and intiatives (both in the civil service and externally) which enable us to do so.

Women into Leadership will take place in Cardiff (sold out), Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, London & Manchester this year. With brand new sessions, speakers, venues and themes, we’re looking forward to welcoming back delegates as well as seeing plenty of new faces.

To join us in 2020, click here >>>

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