The Women’s Association: women need to be their authentic selves to change perceptions

Deborah Williams, founder of the Women's Association, explains why women should celebrate their authentic selves

The Women’s Association believes that every woman’s story deserves to be heard, which is why it has launched the For the Woman campaign.

We spoke with founder Deborah Williams ahead of her guest appearance at the Women in IT UK Summit, 2021, to discusses the Association’s aims and why women should celebrate their authentic selves.

With the For the Woman campaign, you’ve set an ambitious target to make 4,000 women visible in time for International Women’s Day 2022. How are you planning to achieve that?

When I first set the goal, it didn’t seem as ambitious as it does now, but it’s something we’re putting a lot of energy into and are determined to achieve.

It’s about documenting the everyday woman – not only spotlighting those that have achieved positions of leadership.

Every woman’s story deserves to be heard, and this is key to changing perceptions of women. Our goal is to document who these women are through photography.

On the day of the shoot, I ask them to turn up as they are, in whichever way they feel comfortable or want to dress, with or without makeup.

We’ll also be documenting their stories on video, providing role models for the next generations and showing women that we are united.

We want to share how real women look and feel because for so long, we’ve had an idealised image of what is expected of us thrust upon us.

Do you think that it’s important for women to be themselves in the workplace?

Yes, 100%. For me, creating The Women’s Association was my first step to being authentically me.

People often don’t realise that there are women who have experienced career traumas. This is where they have taken a false image of themselves from one organisation to another throughout their careers.

It is why a lot of the young people I have spoken to want to become a social media influencer or their own boss. They don’t necessarily see how they can be themselves in the corporate structure.

I want to use The Women’s Association to empower and support other women on the journey to being their authentic selves because it’s not easy. It will take uncomfortable steps, but it’s worth it in the end.

Why do you think that some women tend to pull up the ladder when they become successful instead of encouraging others?

One woman told me it was because it had taken her a long time to fight for her leadership position, and she didn’t see why she should just drop down the ladder to make it easier for others. Things will never improve if women adopt that mindset.

Some women have gone as far as to fit themselves in a masculine mould to gain leadership positions, whereas if they were in an environment that allowed them to be themselves, maybe they wouldn’t feel they have to pull the ladder up.

Should men be made more aware of what needs to change?

Yes, I’m a huge believer in everyone working together but sometimes men in positions of leadership specifically aren’t close enough to the reality of the issues women and girls face which is one of the reasons I created the Executive Challenge programme.

We give Executives the chance to speak to and hear from girls aged 12-17. So far, we have 73 Executives signed up across 11 companies and 100s of girls on our waiting list. After sitting down with a 16-year old girl, a CEO that previously did the challenge told me it was the first time he’d sat down with the physical manifestation of why his industry needs to change.

Everything we do is about bringing people together to achieve real change for women and girls. Apart from the For the Woman campaign, everyone is welcome at all our community events and projects to help solve the issues that we are fighting. We are firm believers in the power of diversity of thought.

It is about bringing people together to first understand the issue, and then to create the solutions.

Do you think there will ever be a time when these types of conversations will be redundant?

I really hope so. My hope is that one day we will live in a world where women are truly liberated.

I have questioned this, though, because I’ve had so many conversations with women and men in positions of power, and I’ve questioned how we can ever achieve equity when the decision to get there lies in the hands of men? Because of the power position men have historically been in, it feels like, over the years, men have drip-fed women our rights, giving us enough to pacify us but not enough to liberate us. For this to change, we need men that are genuinely interested in seeing that change happen for us to see a shift and everyone isn’t there yet, unfortunately.

I am still very hopeful, there are too many amazing people and companies out here working to create change, so I believe one day it will happen.   

Some men may feel threatened by the gender equality agenda, is there a need to change the language or approach it differently?

I think the approach needs to be more humanised. Often, diversity and inclusion have focused solely on statistics, going from 5% of women in leadership to 25%, for example, instead of focusing on systems, cultures and mindsets that have held women back. To truly understand that people’s lived experiences and stories need to be at the centre, I believe that if more people in power were exposed to the reality of other people’s experiences, it could help them to understand the need for change

What advice would you give to younger women about approaching their career journeys and how to be themselves?

Plug yourself into a supportive network that gives you a real insight into what it’s like to be in the corporate world and support you as you navigate your journey. I feel like a huge part of being your authentic self is understanding what you like and don’t like and setting boundaries that can be difficult personally and professionally. I feel having a supportive community can really help.

When you get to the interview stage, don’t just think about showing that you are the right person but ask if it’s the right workplace for you. It’s important to ask questions and understand the environment because it might not be the right fit for you, and that’s ok. Also, don’t feel like if you choose one path, you have to stick to it. There are so many more opportunities and routes that you can take.

Can vulnerability lead to change in the corporate world?

I always talk about this at events because it’s so important but equally scary for many people. Vulnerability allows people to understand other people on a deeper level which will help them to appreciate the change that needs to happen without being told.

It is about putting yourself in a position to learn from other people. And you have to listen to understand, not listen to respond or to fix.

I feel that so much of the human-to-human dynamic has been stripped from the corporate world. EQ and IQ should go hand-in-hand. But, when you go through education, the focus is on IQ. This will get you through to university, a job, and possibly to senior management, but to be truly successful, we need to have a high level of EQ.

What’s next for The Women’s Association?

Our main focus is on building and supporting our community, spotlighting women for the campaign, and getting more companies signed up for the Executive.

Finally, what message would you like to give corporations and women?

For corporations, to invest in partnerships that can bring about authentic change or can instigate authentic dialogue. They also need to spend more time investing in, managing and monitoring programmes to see what works.

When it comes to women, it’s imperative that we support each other, join a community that will support you and build you up.

To hear more from Deborah and to register for this year’s Women in IT UK Summit, click here. The Women in IT Awards will follow on June 24th. To view the shortlist, please click here. at the Women in IT UK summit in June.

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