“How did someone like you end up in a position like this?”: reflections on being a female CEO on International Women’s Day
Knowing that International Women’s Day was approaching, I wanted to reflect on my experiences of female leadership and women in the workplace over the years.
Attending inner London state schools in the 1980s and 90s meant that many of my friends’ mothers were on benefits. My mum did factory work when she first came to the UK, something that stood out to me because it was unusual among her peers, as was her keen desire to forge a more financially independent existence. Women’s working lives – or at least the ones I was exposed to – were largely focused on positions of need, rather than positions of power. So female leader role models were few and far between. The closest I got was the formidable head of year at my girls’ secondary school, who took every opportunity to emphasise our collective empowerment. But this felt like a bubble and an anomaly that wasn’t reflected outside of the school gates.
Fast forward a few years and I got a job in media as a university graduate. My idea of success at that time was being a suited warrior – having my two-piece from Next, smart shiny shoes, neat hair, and going to my office job. I felt like I’d made it because I was in a suit. It mirrored images of success from films and TV shows that I’d been exposed to for as long as I could remember. Even to this day – decades on – this mentality prevails, and I always make sure I’m well turned out for a meeting or media appearance. I want to start the conversation with what I can deliver, nothing else. But that’s not always what’s remembered. When I got that first office job I had to sit a language test as part of the recruitment process, and I got the highest score the employer had ever seen. But that was never spoken about again. Instead, my manager’s overriding memory of my interview (repeated often) was that “when [I] walked in, [I] looked perfect”.
At this point I’d already exceeded any expectations I’d had as a woman at work. I had an office job, and I got to wear that suit! What more could I want? Now, with decades more experience behind me, I’ve been able to observe the realities of life as a female leader. I’m the CEO of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid and tech start-up Frontline Aid. As a woman in these fields, I’m always playing in somebody else’s space. I’m not male and I’m not white, so I’m constantly on somebody else’s turf. And it’s exhausting. Absolutely exhausting. If you’re a minority in any way – whether that’s because of your gender, race, ethnicity, class or sexual orientation – you suddenly become a representative figure, approached to provide the answer on behalf of the particular group that you’re seen to be a part of. “How did someone like you end up in a position like this?” is a question I get asked a lot. Sometimes it’s asked in a polite, well-meaning way. But often it’s code for “you shouldn’t be here”.
When I’m representing my organisations in work settings – whether that’s meetings or conferences – there are literally no women in equivalent leadership roles. There is no one that looks like me. There is no one that’s come from the same educational background as me. It’s a stark reminder that role models of female leadership haven’t come a very long way in 40 years. The stats back this up: according to FAIR SHARE, a man working in the social impact sector remains three times more likely to rise to a leadership position than a woman. Women of colour accounted for only 4% of “C-suite leaders” (ie those in senior executive positions) in 2021 according to McKinsey.
Someone who’s an important female leader to me is Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank. Like me, she’s a Brit Bengali. She is also partially blind. I cannot express enough how inspiring she is to me, and how influential it is to see a woman of colour in a leadership position. I look at her and think: “you’re like me, I could potentially reach out to you and ask for help”. And it makes me realise that this must be what it’s like for many men, all the time: seeing someone like you, from a similar background, who has a pre-established common ground that you might be able to connect over and possibly leverage, because they’re a decision-maker. But it’s only just happened to me, after many decades in my career – and only once.
Knowing this has spurred me on in sharing my own experiences, in case it helps or inspires someone else. There’s still a huge way to go in terms of levelling the playing field for women. We aren’t represented in leadership positions, in government, in the public sphere… Female labour isn’t always recognised in economic terms (I’m thinking here about the family caring responsibilities that aren’t counted in a country’s GDP), and historically we haven’t been recognised in health research. We need revolutionary-level change to overcome this. That’s how far we have to go.