Swearing by Future: a note to my 16-year-old self for IWD 18.
I recently became aware of The Girls’ Network, a brilliant national charity that was established and is operated by a number of exceptional women. Their aim is to inspire and empower girls from the least advantaged communities (if you do nothing else to mark IWD then do learn more about them here).
Last week, the Network asked me to participate in a workshop they were running for groups of Year 11 girls from different schools across the region and to swap my professional experiences with their ideas about career pathways and choices. I’d been told that (most of) the girls found these sorts of workshops valuable, a point reinforced by the fact that they’d taken a small group of girls into London and been shocked when one asked “why is the woman over there wearing a suit?” In 2012 this teenage girl couldn’t see in what possible context a woman may choose to wear a suit.
The girls at the workshop I met were intelligent and considered, but what struck me was the emergence of similar themes that I’ve encountered multiple times when working with young people as part of Further My Future’s efforts. In all too many cases a triple whammy of partial awareness, limited vocabulary and low levels of confidence seem to impede the ambition and potential of our youth. Those that are aware of what they could choose to be (and in my experience these are the minority) don’t always have the vocabulary to adequately voice that choice, and those that do often lack the confidence to voice it sufficiently so that they are properly heard.
It also struck me that I was about 25 years older than most of the young women I’d met that day. I began to consider how much of what we’d discussed I’d only really learned in the past 15 years, and what may have been different if I’d had learned those lessons sooner. It struck me that though 25 years had passed, their professional concerns/awareness/confusion echoed my own at their age. That in 25 years so much has changed for young women, but so little has changed too.
Confidence is an interesting issue for women. Many of the young girls and women I’ve worked with admit to lacking it. Women are routinely flung between lazy, routine media pieces about the need to “have it all” or conquering imposter syndrome. The subtext being that if you don’t have one you must have the other. Underpinning both of course is the confidence to know what you want and to know you’re good enough. (Note: it’s also helped by not being judged on whether or not you’ve got an amazing career, a doting husband, two perfect children, a home to which Kevin McCloud would want to drop by and visit at any moment, a size 6 wardrobe, a clean-eating diet, devotion to your hot yoga classes and, my personal favourite, endless ‘pins’ that you can routinely ‘flaunt’.)
I work with a brilliant team. The youngest member is a whip-smart 20-year-old woman who routinely pulls me up on any potential cringeworthy behaviour. I’ve watched her professional confidence develop in the past six months and it’s been a real privilege to do so. A while ago I asked her what she felt promoted confidence and her answer was experience. This of course is valid. The more you do something then the more knowledge and therefore confidence you acquire in respect to it. But what happens if you’ve not done something before, what happens to confidence when experience is lacking?
This is something that I think all women can identify with. There’s a frequently cited claim that women only apply for roles when they possess 100% of the requirements outlined in the job description, whereas men are typically happy to apply if they possess 80% of the requirements. There are many reasons why so many glass ceilings are still to be shattered, but might they be smashed far sooner if we can use confidence-building in our young women as a tool with which to redress the balance that leaves the female workforce inequitably engineered to shrink dramatically at school-leaving (you may not be able to do that job), maternity-leaving (you may need to catch up) and child-rearing (you may need to behave like you haven’t got children in the workplace and you haven’t got a job at home) ages?
I’ve been lucky to benefit from the wisdom, guidance and support of two significant professional mentors. At different periods of my career, each was able to see potential and ability that I failed to see in myself. With their counsel I accepted job offers that, at the time, I felt I lacked the perfect experience and professional toolkit to assume.
These mentors couldn’t give me confidence — with time only I’ve been able to achieve this — but I now realise that they did provide me with was courage, and the ability to step forward without knowing exactly what may happen next. If we can’t immediately promote confidence in our young women then we can promote courage in the hope that it delivers experience; and that this experience will ultimately deliver confidence.
The courage to act, though, risks failure. In an environment where the demands and pressures on women are high, fear of failure can breed inertia at best and crippling debilitation at worst.
Failure is something I’d previously felt (not just professionally) was not an option. I’d taken a hard line: pass/fail, good/bad, successful/unsuccessful. This line of thinking was idiotic, though. It’s an exclusive approach rather than an inclusive one. It was also delusional. Hindsight has allowed me to view failure as neither bad nor unsuccessful, but simply an additional, often necessary, step in your professional pathway.
In practice I’m failing all the time. In each senior role I’ve had I’ve made mistakes. I held the courage to take the role, the responsibility and the decisions. But sometimes I got it wrong. And I knew when I did. Sometimes others thought I got it wrong. And I knew when they did (some told me, others trolled me). Getting it wrong felt like catastrophic failure, which became a stick with which I used (or allowed others to use) to beat down my confidence repeatedly. If nothing else it was brilliant resilience training.
It took time and perspective before I saw that failing sometimes is to be celebrated. Failing sometimes means that courage is in force; that you’re stepping forward and seeing what happens. It also enriches your experience and judgement. In collecting positive/successful experiences as well as negative/failing ones then you learn more. Failure isn’t something to be ignored, it’s something to recognise as inevitable if you’re venturing into the unknown. The trick is to learn how to channel it positively and recognise it swiftly.
If courage and failure builds experience and in turn confidence, it takes a bucket-load of confidence to quieten the voice of the inner critic. Your worst enemy. Constantly telling you what you could/should be, never accepting the status quo, rarely congratulatory, routinely demanding that the bar be raised. She’s hard work and zero fun.
What promotes moments of quiet from her noise is acceptance and authenticity. In a professional context I don’t think many people aim to be or believe they are inauthentic. In my direct experience, I think for women in senior roles there’s an interesting relationship between authenticity and strength. More specifically, that in order to be a successful woman you need to be a strong one, regardless of whether you are or not.
In truth I think there are occasions when we each feel strong and occasions where we feel our vulnerabilities leave us exposed. For me, and it’s not a view everyone shares, the ability to be professionally authentic is the ability to allow others to see and know you (not the you you want to project), to recognise what you bring and accept what you don’t yet bring. And to take comfort in the fact that none of us is perfect.
For me this one is a work in progress, and requires a daily check-in. When I get it right I’ve found that it underpins all that is and has been good to and for me.
So to my confused, clueless 16-year-old-terrible-hair terrible-teeth self: take courage, do not fear failure, seek and embrace experience in the pursuit of confidence and allow the confidence you develop to promote your authentic self. You will do things others said you couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t and you will find a love in continuing to do such things. Reclaim these words, allow them to underpin your actions because you, like every young person, deserve the opportunity to #BeSomething.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I asked a number of brilliant women, all of whom have achieved significant professional successes, to tell me what they wish they could have told their 16-year-old self. The responses were superb, honest, inspirational, and a reminder of still how much there is to do for young women.
What I’d intended to be a handful of quotes to support this piece instead became a small anthology I’d like to evolve for young women to access. You can read their responses over on the Further My Future blog here, and I’d be delighted if you’d like to add your own to them. Let me know what your professional now would tell your 16-year-old self at firstname.lastname@example.org
Caroline Walmsley is the Founder and CEO of Further My Future. A business designed to positively impact the lives of all those who encounter it. Prior to establishing this organisation she was the MD of both a publishing house and a learning technologies business, both of which were eventually sold to FTSE 350 organisations. Sounds grand doesn’t it? Rest assured she’s also asked her fair share of stupid questions, made a few mistakes and most recently had to be taught basic Slack skills in order to keep up with everyone in her workplace.