fbpx Where did all the women go? - London Youth

06 March 2020

I always feel reflective on International Women’s day. It’s a big day, it’s one week after my late mother’s birthday and a couple of weeks before Mother’s Day. All of these things feel connected. I find myself thinking about what I have done and what I have left undone to support the cause of women, my own experiences along the way and the leadership I provide to those I work with.

Starting out

Earlier in my career I remember sitting in a room full of managers at all levels of a large voluntary organisation. I loved the organisation, was really excited to be part of it and I was baffled about something. Probably 80% of the people in the room were women. But only about 20% of the senior management. What had happened there?

I know now some of the answers – the impact of unequal childcare arrangements, women feeling they’ve got to be 100% ready for a bigger job, even adverts that describe the post holder as ‘he’.  I wish I had voiced the sheer scale of the disparity and asked why we weren’t doing better (perhaps I didn’t because I was worried about being seen as trouble).

Discrimination isn’t easy to voice

How you are perceived can be a real concern. I’ve had experiences at another organisation of being asked to wear more lipstick to events and even throw a shawl around my jacket to ‘soften’ it! I laugh about it now, but it was painful at the time. It wasn’t something I shared with anyone else – apart from one gay colleague who’d experienced the same.

It’s not news that people are advantaged or disadvantaged for who they are. But I still don’t laugh at finding out in one organisation that I was paid less than a male colleague despite doing a bigger job. And I wouldn’t have found out if I hadn’t been sent his salary details when I was asked to manage him…

It’s precisely because you can feel vulnerable to speak out when you are discriminated against that allies are so important. We’ve been doing active bystander training at London Youth. Equipping people to intervene is an important help. I feel I’ve found a home in this sector because it has always felt more welcoming and embracing of diversity than other sectors. There are things that are wrong and things that need attention. But I think we genuinely strive to improve; even if we need to go further.


I think there is something in that request to wear more lippy we don’t discuss much. It’s about fundraising. Do we sometimes slip as a sector into trying to make ourselves acceptable or even attractive to donors and where should we draw a line? You’re ultimately trying to find a ‘fit’ with someone – and what might that mean for the careers of people who don’t fit the mould of what predominantly white, heterosexual and middle-class wealth looks like? I’ve seen some people get opportunities that I think were on the basis of the organisational image people were trying to project rather than ability.

Personal Leadership

I haven’t always felt able to challenge things or ask questions and that’s one reason why I’m determined to be open for people and try to make it OK to voice concerns.

It’s something I enjoy about being more established in my career, that I feel able to be more myself at work, not forgetting that others are at a more vulnerable feeling stage. I want to use my position positively. I know that even now when I start a new job, I notice the moment of talking openly about being gay. But if I take that step, I hope it makes it that bit easier for others to bring their whole selves to work more confidently.

I’ve had some significant advantages in my career –a Cambridge degree and a personal role model in my 4’9’’ indomitable mum (see…I’m tall really). I had the lucky break of starting my career when local authorities were spending serious money to provide in-depth training for their youth workers. The environment for my younger colleagues is very different, which is one reason I’m passionate about the training and networks London Youth can offer.

The need for more flexible leadership models

At this point in my career I am still left with that question about the disappearing women in management. I know so many skilled, talented and experienced women who have left roles or taken roles below the level of their experience because of the lack of flexibility. Our leadership models are meant to have evolved. Our business schools teach that the strong, ‘hero’ model of leadership, with one person as the single point of vision and direction is outdated. Dispersed leadership is supposed to be the name of the game.

But as a sector, are we really embracing alternatives? We seem to have a fairly unquestioned assumption that a single point of focus is a pre-requisite for good leadership. Where are the job share leaders? Where are the adverts offering this as a possibility for senior roles? Are any of the recruitment firms generating research about this? Because we don’t yet have this in place, we are pushing talent away. Too many women find themselves conflicted between the roles they want and family and find the only way to resolve it is to step away.

I hope the sector will begin to address this skills loss – it’s bad for women, for the sector and for men too. Male leaders would also benefit from different approaches. But until we find that change, I will be left with the same question I had when I was sitting in that room – where did all the women go?

– Rosemary Watt-Wyness, Chief Executive

Click here to read more of our International Women’s Day blogs.

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