I'm a CEO but children don't believe I can be the boss – because I'm a woman

We need to show youngsters that successful female role models exist, and that women are capable of inspiring and leading

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The first time I encountered a sexist comment at work was age 17 when I was working at a supermarket. Like many other women, I encountered misogyny and some harassment early in my career and I dealt with it as lots of us do – a mixture of sharp wit and a false laugh depending on the situation. On the inside, it steeled me as I realised the battle I would face in order to get to the top. As women we’re often taught to hide our ambition and determination to succeed, something I’ve never been very good at.

Throughout my career I’ve been lucky to have some incredible female role models who acted as mentors and champions for me – it helped me see through the glass ceiling to the other side and made me realise my goals were achievable. I’ve seen first-hand how powerful mentors in the workplace can be, and it’s something we incorporate into the volunteering programme of all the young people we work with.

When I became the Chief Executive of City Year UK, aged 32, it didn’t feel ground-breaking that I was a female leader, although when you look at the statistics I realise the odds weren’t in my favour – only 30 per cent of charity leaders are women. And this is much higher than in other sectors. I helped to get the charity, based on a hugely successful and large US model, up and running. I felt I had the respect of my colleagues from the start, although I did find I had a lot to prove externally, including from an unexpected source – primary school children.

Gender pay gap

My role takes me across the country into schools in some of the most disadvantaged communities where we place young people, aged 18 to 25, who spend a year volunteering, making a difference and honing invaluable skills at the same time.

On one visit, I was astounded when I introduced myself and the pupils couldn’t believe I was the “boss” because I was a woman. Embarrassed, shocked and, I have to admit, a little crushed, I realised that we are talking to the wrong generation when it comes to gender equality. We need to start, much, much earlier.

This was a turning point for me and I vowed to take every opportunity to talk to young people about aiming high and achieving their potential, no matter their background, ethnicity or gender.

 

We need to show youngsters that successful female role models exist, and that women are capable of inspiring and leading.

 

I work with young women each day, whether they are our volunteers or members of staff, and they tend to be intrigued and pleased that the charity is led by a woman. They are often desperate for advice and we usually talk about how it is to be a woman in the workplace. Since I’ve become a mum, they (and so many others) have asked me how I manage to balance home and work life successfully. Of course, no one asks my husband the same question.

 

If there is one piece of advice I could give young women now, based on everything I’ve experienced so far, it’s to find yourself not just a mentor but a champion – someone to believe in you, to help you see what is possible and most of all to be alongside you to help you get there.

Sophie Livingstone is Chief Executive of City Year UK, a is a youth social action charity that challenges 18 to 25-year-olds to tackle educational inequality through a year of full-time voluntary service. As mentors, tutors and role models in schools, they support pupils growing up in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the UK. cityyear.org.uk

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