Alex Hems, Head's Blog 25 June
On Monday we were fortunate to hear from an array of inspiring women who shared their perspectives and experiences with our Sixth Form, under the heading Women of the Future: Leading and Living in the 21st Century. Our mission was to open up a discussion about the changing nature of the working world and the fact that career paths are very rarely straightforward but can involve very different phases and significant changes of direction.
The women who gave their time so generously came from academia, from sport, engineering, the music industry, health care, technology and more. They are CEOs, entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders and change-makers. Their experiences and routes through life were varied and fascinating. When I devised the title for the event I deliberately combined ‘leading’ with ‘living’ because I believe that we do not leave ourselves ‘at home’ when we are working. Of course we should be professional and committed at work, but the experiences and values that shape us into the employees, employers or colleagues that we are often touch our most personal core, and if we can draw on those positively as a source of strength and motivation, then surely we will be able to give so much more to our work. Conversely, while we do not live to work, feeling that we do work that matters and is aligned with our values is an immensely important part of self-esteem for most of us. So many of our speakers referred to the importance of staying true to one’s values, and hand in hand with that, they spoke of the need for courage – the courage to take a leap of faith, based on following your interests, passions and core beliefs. ‘Speak up, even when your voice shakes’, was a phrase that resonated very powerfully with me on Monday.
I am still fizzing with the energy that these women brought with them, the excitement that they were able to convey about their work and their lives. Certainly none of them claimed that any of what they have achieved has been easy; it was clear that they all have a very strong work ethic, but they have been sustained through challenges and adversity by belief in what they are doing. Yewande Akinola, an energetic, determined and charismatic young engineer spoke of the importance of finding a mentor, of working with people who inspire you and finding opportunities for creativity to maintain motivation and focus. Importantly, they made clear that they are not afraid of failure, seeing it as a chance to learn and progress rather than as an end point. ‘Embrace challenge as a gift’, in the words of Claire Nelson, CEO of Netball Scotland, who closed the conference for us.
So where does that question of ‘having it all’ fit in to this picture of the woman of the future? If by that we mean being able to have a successful and fulfilling career, and having a family, then many of our guests show very clearly that it can be done. None of them, I am sure, would say that it has been straightforward for them, but very much worthwhile and often inspiring and lifechanging. Is that the only way in which we should define a successful woman though? This is an issue that goes to the very heart of the origins of this conference, which lay in some very thought-provoking discussions with my colleagues about the way in which we define success. The notion of the ‘superwoman’ calmly presiding over a meeting while smoothly managing all other areas of her family’s life does no-one any favours, becoming an unhelpful ideal against which we measure ourselves. We all need to know, on our own terms, what success means for us, in our working and personal lives, recognising too that the definition may change as we move through different stages in our lives.
Finally, we were exhorted to be kind, to ourselves and to others. To remember that we can lift up others with our stories, and that we can all make a difference. It was a day to remember, and I hope that the students who took part were as inspired by it as I was.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School, Edinburgh