Women in Leadership: Time to try something different?


Youth Scotland’s board on how they have achieved their 50:50 gender split ahead of schedule

Dona Milne is Chair of Youth Scotland, Deputy Director of Public Health at NHS Lothian, and Chair of the Children’s Parliament in Scotland.

On International Women's Day 2015, our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set a challenge to all public, private and third sector bodies to achieve a 50:50 gender split on boards by 2020 in recognition of the slow rate of progress in gender equality. She gave women a simple message: "If you are good enough and work hard enough, there is nothing that should hold you back from reaching your full potential and achieving your dreams". It was a powerful message, welcomed by many.

I am very proud to say that Youth Scotland, the network of youth groups in Scotland, has already reached its goal of having a 50/50 gender balance on its board of governance; in fact we achieved it three years earlier than intended in 2017!

Representation in the Youth Work Sector

Some people have asked me why this is important in the youth work sector. There is a very simple answer. Youth Scotland has 1100 members across Scotland. We know from our most recent statistics that women make up around 64% of our full time, part time and volunteer workforce. If women make up over 60% of our workforce then they need to be able to see that reflected in decision making roles and we need to hear women's voices round the table. I am pleased to say that this is happening at Youth Scotland.

In addition to ensuring we hear women's voices on the board, we also want to see women represented in leadership roles in youth work. Youth Scotland is committed to growing women leaders from within youth work. Last year we noticed that women were not coming forward in the same numbers as men for our Leadership in Youth Work programme delivered jointly with the Social Enterprise Academy.

We didn't think this was because women weren't leading in youth work, but that perhaps they didn't see themselves as leaders as much as men did or perhaps felt unsure about attending a leadership programme. We knew we had to try something different. So we offered a women only leadership programme. We are pleased to say that the programme was fully subscribed and evaluated extremely well as women recognised that their leadership experiences are different from men and that they needed to build their own support networks, just as men have done historically.

Building a Network of Support

Clare Swann is Director at School’s Out Peebles, and a board member at Youth Scotland. In 2017 she attended the Leading in Youth Work programme for female leaders in youth work organisations:

“To be honest, the women only aspect of the course did not occur to me as significant when I signed up. I have attended many courses and events with men and have always had healthy working relationships with men. So to me it made no difference at the offset. 

However, it became quickly apparent that having a room full of only women leaders was significant. The course was more powerful, we all appeared to be more honest and open and as a result formed very strong relationships and created a true sense of trust and compassion within the group. 

I personally found the course helped me as much in work as in my personal life and I know many of the other women on the course made significant changes in their personal lives too. 

As women, we all came from different places with different experiences and different beliefs, but I think the fact that we were all women working in leadership roles faced with similar challenges created an extremely supportive and empowering experience, in which I was extremely proud to be part of.”

Charlotte Lawley, Hub Manager for Southern Scotland at the Social Enterprise Academy, said of the programme:

“The value of bringing women together to learn, share and develop in a safe and confidential environment cannot be underestimated. We need to be offering women, both aspiring and established leaders, the opportunity to share their stories, connect and develop, in order to sustain the positive levels of women leaders we currently have.

Through designing and delivering this programme with Youth Scotland, the Academy has learnt a lot about what it takes to create a programme for women which is inclusive, strengths-based and role focused, and we have been encouraged by the positive stories and feedback the learners on this programme have had to share.”

Is it Time to Try Something Different?

We might think that by working in the youth work sector we have a greater awareness of gender equality than perhaps the private sector. But I don't think that we can be complacent, and we certainly shouldn't make assumptions that we are getting it right for women.

Whether we are talking about senior paid or unpaid positions, development opportunities or recognition of achievements, we need to ensure that women and their experiences are represented. As recent campaigns about girls in science have told us, you "need to see one to be one" so if you can't see and hear women at all levels of your organisation, perhaps it is time, like us, to do something differently.

Youth Scotland provide quality youth work programmes, information, resources, training and support for community based youth work. You can find out more at www.youthscotland.org.uk and follow them @YouthScotland on Twitter.

If you are interested in running a leadership development programme for aspiring or established women leaders in your organisation or sector, please contact charlotte@socialenteprise.academy

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