Saturday 29 September 2012

Go ask your mother!

This is a tricky post to write for various reasons. Please bear with me, I think there's something important under here but it's wrapped in a slightly fuzzy layer of emotion by necessity, something which will become evident as we go along. A summary would include the words coaching, mentoring, role models, invisible women and social mobility.

I'm a verbal thinker. And that it was a conversation with two blokes which led to the following post is probably an indicator of how valuable and trusted both those two people are becoming to my thinking but also of how valuable I find both genders in bouncing ideas off, discussing and debating with. This is important because this post involves female role models. But I'd like to make it really clear how much I value the lads in my life. And some of the problem I'm about to try and unravel may be something to do with the fact that there have been no shortage of fantastic male role models in my life thus far.

There's been an absolute dearth of female ones.

I think we've established I'm a bit of a tomboy by now. I'm really comfortable being the only girl in a bunch of male bike riders. I'm really comfortable being the only girl in a pub with a big group of boys. Being slightly 'techy' means you're going to be familiar with single gendered gatherings and ditto having a history of knowing ways around Counterstrike maps intimately.

The problem with being in a series of situations, both in my spare time and work time where I was often the only girl, means there was no one to model my behaviour on, nor my aspirations. This meant for the longest time that I didn't have them because I didn't know I could. The women in my family either didn't work, worked as cleaners or worked as office administrators in car factories. Cousins were nurses, nannies and theatre dressers. There was not a manager or leader in sight.

Now this is where it becomes interesting. Speak to some women and they wonder why on earth this would ever be an issue. I've recently spoken to one woman who could be considered an adventurer, an explorer, an incredibly brave, fearless and boundary pushing person. She cannot understand she is a role model. She cannot understand other women would feel a lack of role model would impede their aspiration. She simply cannot understand. Some of it is modesty. But I suspect a lot of her viewpoint is shaped by her background, where her mother was strong, her sisters are strong, and you learn, study and then achieve. Something. Whether that's in the more traditional within four walls kind of achievement or the being the first woman to do something kind of achievement.

I did not grow up in that environment. I am not smarter than my mother but I am very different. Very much the same, but very different. There have been times in my life when 'go ask your mother!' has been either intimated or said outright and I am always left walking away with my tail between my legs because how do you explain to some hotshot your mother is a cleaner, has one O level and that people can be quite wonderful in a thousand different ways but utterly useless when it comes to helping their daughter climb a career ladder?

So, as you do, you tend to become self reliant, read books, read the web, search out your own role models and chat to them, try and learn from them, whilst trying to never let on how utterly clueless you might feel. Then you get a job. A wonderful job. The kind of job that makes you dance in the morning. Sometimes literally. And suddenly there are lovely women who don't tell you to go ask your mother and have more time than your previous rather fab mentor had to help you sort yourself out. There are networks and visible women everywhere. There's all different kind of leadership types to model yourself on and you realise Margaret Thatcher isn't it, that's not the end of becoming a woman who leads.

But because you've always been self reliant, it takes a while for the words of advice, nay the waterfall of advice from so may quarters to sink in, because it's such a shock that suddenly people have time to help, they have time to listen and they've got the patience, the persistence and tenacity to understand the willing is there, that the determination is there but there's a bit of a lag when it comes to sorting all the advice into three sections:


So why am I sharing this?

I want women who are leaders to understand how much of a difference they make. I don't know if they know. You don't have to mentor someone, thought it's ace if you do. You don't have to write a blog though god knows I'd be lost without some of the ones I read and it'd be ace if you could. You just have to be visible. There. So that the next generation of wee graduates who are still finding their feet and themselves can see you there, and decide they want to be just like you.

But I think also, I'd like the next generation of wee graduates (or the kids still in school even) to know that if your parents can't give you what you need (through no fault of their own, I  hasten to add, hell social mobility as a phrase exists for a reason) there are other people who will. That if you're not sure if the fire in your belly to change something, to be better, can survive going out into the big wide world alone, you're wont be, I promise. If you're prepared to iterate yourself, if you're prepared to put the work in, if you're prepared to listen, be patient, wait for your brain to process the input and act on it, if you're prepared to take some leaps of faith, you can become the person you would like to be.

For those of you wondering what the big deal might be about and as a kind of postscript...

I was a very quiet child and I read a lot. The books I read came from either the library or the charity shop. Sweet Valley High contained blonde women who were either brainy, or attractive. But always waited for a man to tell them what to do, usually their boyfriend, who would come along with some sage bit of advice. Nancy Drew helped but not much, she used her brain but not in a way I could identify with at all. Enid Blyton - well the less said the better hmmm? And Agatha Christie sadly sat in the same mold. I didn't have the internet, I didn't have access to inspiring adventure books containing women climbing mountains or running a long way. That's because the books hadn't been written, because until the 80's women just didn't do things like that. Or if they did they did it quietly.

It's about visibility. If I can't see you, I assume you're not there. These days, things are different. But I'm old, and in my day they weren't different at all. They were always the same and girls wore dresses, went to Mass and didn't say boo to a goose. Just don't ever ask me how many scars I've got from falling off things ;O)


  1. Anthony Zacharzewski29 September 2012 at 22:09

    When it comes to books, a friend says she was inspired by Nancy Blackett, one of the children in Swallows and Amazons, in her reading as a child. It's a long while since I read them but I remember Nancy as a very strong, intelligent character. (I also remember she was really called Ruth but called herself Nancy because she loved pirates and her uncle told her that pirates should be Ruthless).

    Just asked my daughter (8) what characters she thinks are strong girls that she would like to be like, and she came up with:

    Annabel from Mr Stink by David Walliams
    Laura Marlin from Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John
    Pippi Longstocking (although she thinks she's more like Annika, the girl who lives next door to Pippi)
    Clarice Bean from the books by Lauren Child
    Matilda from the book by Roald Dahl.

    1. Gosh, I'd forgotten Pippi Longstocking and yes Annika, me too :O)
      I never managed to get on with Swallows and Amazons. I got distracted as well by the Brontes and Austen which again were lovely insights into historical women but didn't quite help with the idea women could be mistresses of their own destiny.
      I do remember that in To Kill a Mockingbird Scout left an impression so GCSE English wasn't an entire write off though moving on to Shakespeare and second world war poets soon killed any hope off.
      J K Rowling, I would hope, has added to the kick ass female role models who make being smart run parallel with not being pathetic. And then there's Joss Whedon which is where the conversation at the beginning of the post started, actually.
      And yet, still, reading a woman's personal account of riding this totally blew my mind. Because it was a real woman doing real things in real life.

    2. The this in the above comment should go here ;O)

  2. An interesting piece, and I have comments.

    1. You don't have to be a manager to be inspirational.
    2. A university education doesn't make you special (or even more intelligent. Some of the most stupid people I have ever met have not one, but two degrees). 3. The career ladder is not the be all and end all of everything. And,
    4. There are some truly amazing people who achieve incredible things for charities, good causes and their family and who are "only" cleaners, tealadies, or admin staff.

    Clearly you love her, so your cleaner mother can't have done too badly...