Thoughts on International Women's Day

Featured article - 08 March 2021
By Kathryn Smith, Chief Executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

Kathryn Smith, Chief Executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

Kathryn discusses her experience of career progression as a woman and mother, and the importance of flexibility and setting boundaries at work.

It's International Women's Day today and this got me thinking about my role as a woman and a mother and its effect on my career.

In case you didn't know, International Women's Day is celebrated on the 8 March every year and is a focal point in the movement for women's rights. It started in 1909 after the Socialist Party of America organised a Women's Day on 28 February in New York. After women gained suffrage in Russia following the February Revolution in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday there before later being adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Today, International Women's Day is a public holiday in some countries and largely ignored elsewhere. In some places, it is a day of protest; in others, it is a day that celebrates womanhood.

Often in discussions with colleagues and friends on this subject, people will start a discussion by saying: "Don't get me wrong, I'm not a feminist, but..." I then wonder: "What's wrong with being a feminist?" If you look back at our history, how did women get the right to vote, if not for the campaigning of feminists and those supporting the women's rights movements from both sexes?

I had always been quite ambitious and remember vividly in my early twenties when I was a manager in care services wondering why people spoke of a glass ceiling as I couldn't see the problem and had never been aware of any discrimination in applying for roles. I will caveat that I worked in social care and I am aware the sector is quite different to some commercial sectors in terms of culture.

The first time it hit me that I may struggle to progress where my male counterparts did not was when I had my first baby. I discovered I was pregnant just as I was offered a promotion, I did tell my (female) manager that I had just found out I was pregnant in case that affected her decision and her response was: "Well, I've offered it to you now - I can't take it back". Her irritation wasn't lost on me though, particularly when she contacted me one day to tell me I had been breastfeeding long enough and it was time I stopped so that I could go back to covering the 24 hour shifts in the care homes! Don't worry - I didn't and she was quickly reminded of her legal obligations!

When I had children I discovered I couldn't operate the way that I had done the rest of my career: available at all hours to cover any crisis, frequently not taking a day off (i.e. working seven days a week). Of course I worried how that would impact my reputation and my career and so I became quite an expert at prioritising and managing to fit in more than seems possible in a working day.

I know I'll always want to make a difference at work, and to have a positive impact on people around me, so I'll always be committed to my career – and it's important to me that I set an example to my three sons that women have fulfilling careers. Equally, I love my children more than anything and want to be a big part of their lives as any parent would. So I made a decision about what were my goals and boundaries. I do stand strong on protecting time with my children if they need me at the same time as my work does. I believe in respecting these boundaries if you show your commitment, hard work, and develop a good reputation and the trust of your colleagues and boss. It doesn't, and probably shouldn't, come as an automatic right for anyone.

Over the years, I've also noticed the contrasting way my male colleagues and friend's experience being a father in the workplace. Some have receiving heightened praise if they leave early to collect their children, whilst others would not even dream of mentioning they had children at work for concern that it may undermine their position.

So what do I think needs to change? I think the campaign for equal rights is right at the heart of questions about future of society and what kind of society that will be. I think we are in a better position in charities and social care than other sectors, however I still believe there is still much work to achieved full equality.

Work-life balance is a key issue for all of us. Hopefully one day we'll see legislation change so that parental leave should be equal for both parents and not transferable. Imagine as a woman you have three children and you take a year off for each of them, that's three years out of the workforce which can have a serious impact on her career progression in comparison to someone who has not.

It also can have a negative impact on the father because he doesn't get to see his child to the same extent in their earliest months, so I strongly believe that these rights should not be transferable. They should be held by each parent separately, regardless of their sex, in the same manner as sickness and holiday rights. We all have to work toward a change in culture so that this can happen and that it is socially acceptable for it to do so.

We can only get things done if there is collaboration between men and women on this. This isn't just a fight for women, it is important for every single person. So I will proudly say that I am a feminist and I will invite my three sons, and all other men I speak to, to say that they are feminists too. We are the future and we can all make a difference!

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