I want everyone, regardless of gender, to realise their potential. However, I would never want to impose specific expectations of achievement. – Meriel Lenfestey, Chair, Independent Non-Executive Director
I have a natural lifelong resistance to others’ expectations. Meeting them is dull, exceeding them is delivering to someone else’s goal, missing them is disappointing. Far better to maintain an air of mystery and challenge myself to entirely different expectations. I was born into a family of scientists, so gravitating towards art and design and founding a startup in my 20’s bears no relation to the safe civil service working context I was raised in; my early timid character has been crafted into an insatiable adventurous spirit; I have frequently found myself in entirely male dominated workplaces; I refuse to be shoehorned into a single industry; and I have managed to get design thinking represented in the boardroom.
As with many things in life I can’t pretend this was all deliberate so there’s an element of post-rationalising how this came about and what it could mean for others wanting to achieve their potential.
I can suggest the following as key factors:
- Understand your strengths – build a narrative that excites you, provokes interest and thought in others, and be prepared to evolve it.
- Seize opportunities and put yourself forward – you’ll surprise yourself. You won’t succeed every time, but you will learn every time.
- Shape your workplace – help shape the context you need to succeed, whether that’s the physical environment, flexible working, technology, social interaction or anything else. A great context will create an effective workforce and loyalty so work to influence your employers.
- Build personal mutual support – work as a team with your partner, or build support networks with your friends.
- Be yourself, but cognisant of peers – don’t try to bend yourself to be like them but be sensitive to how you contribute diversity of thinking and behaviour to the team.
For me, it’s a no brainer that gender shouldn’t define potential. I am strongly against quotas in leadership, in part because I would never want to believe I got selected because I’m a woman, and I wouldn’t want my colleagues to respect me less as a result. For me, a more diverse representation (be it gender or otherwise) comes from building capability and confidence and providing the environment to thrive. That’s the responsibility of education, families, the workplace, and the individual.
I believe things are changing for the better in terms of equality – and I really hope that this isn’t even a conversation we will need to have in years to come.