International Women’s Day 2023: can a woman have it all?

With this year's theme being #embraceequity, Sue Mountford, CEO of Team ITG, reflects on her 30-year career

This year’s International Women’s Day theme, #embraceequity, has allowed me to reflect on the pressures of balancing work with motherhood, the stereotypes and inappropriate behaviours I have had to overcome, and how I came to realise that authenticity was the most powerful tool in my arsenal.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, it’s important to note that over the course of my 30-year career, a huge amount has changed, which I am incredibly grateful for. However, there is still such a long way for us to go.

“Wow, well, don’t you have it all! A high-flying job and a child? Gosh, you must be exhausted; I could never be away from mine!” – Miscellaneous judgemental parent at a school parents evening, approx. 2001-2004.

The concept of “having it all” is something that I, and I am sure many other women, are faced with every day. The apparent choice that we as women must make between having a career and having a family. The truth is “having it all” doesn’t exist; it never has.

Coming up through my career as a single Mum was tough. I felt guilty when I was at work that I wasn’t at home with my precious child and then felt guilty when I was at home that I wasn’t nailing it at work. I was trying to do as much as the men, putting as many hours in as them, and attempting to be as flexible as them, which, when faced with the reality of being a single mother, was tough. Something had to give, but mainly, it felt like an almighty battle. One that society hasn’t yet provided a solution to.

Thank God, I found myself in a rare position where I had a champion in my corner. One of the few men I’ve come across in business who understood that by accommodating talent, and in my case, accommodating a woman who was bringing up a child alone, I would thrive and deliver more. More quality, with more drive, more passion, and more loyalty to the business. And so, a mutually rewarding partnership was born.

But it was not ever thus.

There have been times in my career when I have most certainly been ‘weighed up’ at first sight.

“She can’t be serious. She’s blonde, dressed up and wears heels…”

“She’s a ‘fluffy’”

Unwanted and crass advances that I had to laugh off as compliments while feeling sick inside.

It used to really bother me, and I was left questioning myself, thinking, “should I dumb down? Ditch my look? Try to be what people expect. Try not to attract the wrong sort of attention?”

This inner conflict I had around conforming to the societal norm almost led to me losing myself and my identity, not only in business but within my personal life.

Until I realised authenticity is golden.

I realised I could use people’s inaccurate initial perceptions of me to my advantage.

Some of you might be old enough to remember TV’s crime-fighting hero, Columbo. He didn’t mind that people tended to underestimate him because of how he presented himself. That was good. The suspects let their guard down, and he got what he needed by looking, listening, and learning. And he always cracked the case!

For me, International Women’s Day is about reflecting and recognising, with huge gratitude, all the other women who have played their part in supporting us. That could be, as in my case, my amazing mum, who herself juggled a demanding career when bringing up her three children, balancing parenting, marriage, and home life and being an incredible inspiration to me. Or the many, many women (too many to mention by name) who have been there as mentors, friends, supporters, and colleagues.

There is a precious ‘shorthand’ between women. Unspoken solidarity. An empathetic safe space for those who may need it. Sometimes, you just want to know that someone else shares the same struggles as you, and other times, you want to have someone to look up to, another woman whose success you can celebrate and realise that if you want something, the opportunities are endless.

As much as celebrating other women is our main focus on this day, it’s also important to recognise those champions in our lives who have seen us for who we are along the way. Not how many hours we can work or how flexible we can be, but what we can bring as individuals. Not enforcing conventional working policies but celebrating the results.

Lastly, I celebrate my daughter on International Women’s Day, who I like to believe is a stronger woman for seeing me navigate a career in this very male world, knowing anything is possible when we are our authentic selves with the right support.

Happy International Women’s Day, all!

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