THE BLOG

Jill Archer Is My Role Model (Or How to Say 'No' Gracefully)

08/03/2013 13:15 GMT | Updated 07/05/2013 10:12 BST

The first time I heard someone say, "If you want something done, ask a busy woman", was about 20 years ago during an episode of The Archers when Jill Archer, the matriarch of the family saga, was looking for someone to cover her volunteering role at the WRVS.

It struck me then as true on so many levels. Like many women juggling small children, households, careers and trying to play their part in the community, I felt both stretched and guilty. On a daily basis, I worried - and still do actually - whether I was pulling my weight, whether I was doing enough personally to support those who needed it, from selling raffle tickets for the school, to spending an hour with our elderly neighbour; from collecting for Poppy Day, to volunteering at the boys' club; from mentoring young women to acting in the local pantomime. These were all things that I had done in the past and wanted still to do. I put loads of pressure on myself to cram more into my days - and so there I was ready to agree to almost anything if anyone actually asked me to do it.

Gradually over the years, and benefiting from the wisdom of others, (Barbara Cassani, I remember, as particularly scathing on the foolishness of working women cooking a full-scale Sunday lunch, when they needed time to relax), I realised that it was of course true that busy people achieve a great deal by being well-organised. But busy women - carrying a burden of self-imposed guilt - are particularly vulnerable to the 'ask'.

And as I wake up this morning on International Women's Day, wondering as always when we will no longer feel the need to champion, celebrate and commend women on a special day, I think about confidence. Many young Western women have such enviable confidence in their equality and right to equal (not better, not worse) treatment, that we might almost feel that our work here was done. But I think that conclusion might be premature. In my own sector alone, only 25% of the top 100 charities have female chief executives - bearing in mind that 68% of charity sector workers are women, this is more than disappointing. Perhaps some of these women are too tired doing everything, they don't have time to do anything as well as they would like. And perhaps some of them settle for less in their careers than they would like from sheer exhaustion. And that is the reason why we still need (sadly) to encourage them to apply for top jobs and to promote good role models. It doesn't matter if you want to be a CEO or an amateur opera singer: if it's what makes you happy, go for it. Don't let your dreams slip through your fingers.

And I think that the women who go before have a special duty to mentor, encourage and support young women; both to do whatever they want in their professional lives - but also to have that confidence to draw the line. To know when they have done enough, when they have achieved a good balance in their lives and when to say "no", however compelling the ask.

So, my message for International Women's Day (in the Western world at least) to women everywhere is to learn to say "no" gracefully. And to men everywhere, if you want something done, by all means ask a busy woman - but don't be offended by a polite refusal.