THE BLOG

Why Seeing Success Is the First Step to Believing in It

24/03/2014 15:36 GMT | Updated 24/05/2014 10:59 BST

For businesswomen, this year's International Women's Day, which took place earlier this month, presented something of a paradox.

There are reasons to be cheerful. A report last year from Women on Boards suggested that headway is finally being made to address the elephant in most corporate boardrooms - female representation. Since 2010, female boardroom membership of FTSE 100 and 250 companies has increased by nearly 50%.

Yet cause for concern remains. Research by the Financial Advisor School indicates the glass ceiling is not only intact but actually thickening, with 80% of those surveyed believing the hurdles women face in Britain are worsening - a rise of 14% from 2012. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics also show that, for the first time since 2008, the UK gender pay gap has widened.

While it is undeniable that women are still systematically disadvantaged in the labour market, an issue that needs to be urgently addressed is that of ambition and self-confidence. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg touched a nerve speaking at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, pinpointing a "tyranny of low expectations" among women.

If the next generation of ambitious young women are to fulfill their potential, it is fundamental that they believe in their themselves and their ability to succeed.

Experience and self-perception are intertwined. This is one reason I have launched the "What I See" project, an initiative that asks women across the world a simple question: "What do you see when you look in the mirror?"

In their response, women from a diverse range of backgrounds and professions share through filmed interviews their experiences and insights on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Participants are encouraged to reflect on their self-perceptions and identity, empowering them with a voice which, when brought together with others, seeks to install in young ambitious women the conviction that they can succeed.

One such inspiring story is that of highly acclaimed painter and printmaker Eileen Cooper. As a self-described "product of the comprehensive system" who worked summer jobs as "the worst waitress in the world", in 2011 she was elected by her peers as the Keeper of the Royal Academy of Arts - the first woman to fill the post in the 246 years it has existed.

Another contributor, Jude Kelly, faced equally challenging hurdles. Following a troubled adolescence and having experienced overt sexism at university, today she is the Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and organizer of the Women of the World festival, an annual celebration of female achievements. "I would want young people to believe that what they had in themselves was going to be good enough...and to not listen to the negative voices," she explains.

The power of these stories lies not just in each inspiring individual example, but also in their collective message, and the hope and sense of aspiration they can offer to young women who may be experiencing similar difficulties in their own lives.

Too many young women today still hold deep reservations about their ability to realise their ambitions. Knowing that brilliantly successful women have been through similar difficulties can offer some of the support and confidence needed to overcome these apprehensions.

Those who suffer from 'Impostor Syndrome', the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, may take some comfort from the fact that women like Kate Winslet and Emma Watson are on record as having experienced the same, for instance.

International Women's Day offered an important opportunity to reflect on how opportunities for women have developed in recent years, and the challenges that remain. The stories of successful women can begin to inspire a shared belief that inequality can be overcome -- which would be half the battle in itself.

Edwina Dunn is co-founder of dunnhumby and created the What I See project: http://whatiseeproject.com/