What I’ve Learned about being a Female Leader

by Zoe Amar

This morning I woke up to the news that fewer than half the UK’s biggest employers have succeeded in narrowing their gender pay gap. This is deeply worrying. Meanwhile Ruby Bayley-Pratt, fundraising policy and research manager at the British Red Cross, wrote an excellent piece recently for Civil Society about sexual harassment in the sector, leading to the Institute of Fundraising setting up a taskforce to tackle the issue. These stories show that initiatives such as Mandy Johnson’s wonderful Great Charity Speakers are needed now more than ever.

Being a woman in 2019 comes with many challenges. But I’m very proud to be a female leader in the sector.

Like every woman who finds herself in a leadership position, it hasn’t been an easy journey. I’ve worked with many women and men who’ve been supportive. They have encouraged, supported, and challenged me along the way. However, I’ve had moments when it’s been tough. Thankfully this has happened rarely, but earlier in my career I’ve been talked over in meetings and had reports I’d written explained to me. I’ve spent over a decade as a charity trustee and I remember coming home from a meeting some years ago feeling disheartened as the only woman on the board I then sat on. I could name many more times when I felt that it was harder to be a woman than a man.

As I progressed up the career ladder, I spoke to many female leaders I admired in and outside of the sector. And what I realised is that I had to celebrate what set me apart, which was particularly important to me as a BAME woman. In short, I had to change my mindset.

Soon after I started my first job many years ago, I asked a colleague how I could develop my gravitas and presence. My colleague gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had. She said, “They will listen to you because you are different.” I really do believe that if you are different it can be powerful and disarming when you speak up. It’s authentic and makes people stop and listen.

Part of my job now is to go in and have difficult conversations with senior leaders about the future of their organisations, and what is and isn’t working. If I looked like the people I spoke to they might bristle at a tough message. As a BAME woman I have an alternative perspective on things and that can help charities think differently about what they do, but also gives me a licence to challenge and to speak truth to power. Once I started to think like that I felt liberated.

The charity as well as the tech world needs to do a lot more to improve diversity. Just 19% of the UK tech workforce is female, and 81% is male. Almost 80% of senior leadership teams at charities lack any ethnic minority professionals. This isn’t good enough and the sector needs to make it an urgent priority to change this. As a BAME woman I feel that I need to be more visible now, not less. Stats like these make me want to highlight who I am, not hide it. If you are different, you need to own it and you need to rock it. And the good thing is that if you automatically stand out, you are more likely to be remembered.

As a woman, there are always going to be people who judge you, including how you look. But you can choose how much time you give to other people’s opinions. In the early years of my career I wore navy pinstriped trouser suits to my job working in a City law firm, worrying a lot about whether I fitted in. The rules have changed now, and so have I. I’ve always loved colourful clothes, bold prints and dresses and high heels. That’s just who I am. If it makes you feel confident and comfortable, wear it.

At the social enterprise I run, I’m very proud that 92% of my team are women. I look out for other women in the sector because it’s the women who came before me who helped me achieve what I have today.

That’s why we need to see more women speaking at conferences and represented in leadership roles. And it’s exactly why we must keep challenging the sector and ourselves if we don’t see the change we want. Because if we don’t, who will?

by Zoe Amar MCIM
Founder and Director Zoe Amar Digital

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: