08/03/2016 06:15 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 05:12 GMT

It's Time to Put Gender on the Agenda and #PledgeForParity


Last year, the World Economic Forum estimated that a slowdown in the already 'glacial pace of progress' means we're not going to achieve global gender parity until 2133. My daughter certainly can't expect it. With no more setbacks, we might just about get there by the time my great, great, great granddaughter (if I have one) joins the world of work. But I don't want to wait that long. It's time we all put gender on our agenda and on International Women's Day 2016 see how we can #PledgeForParity.

I don't run a women's organisation, but each year more than 60% of the volunteers at the charity I lead are young women. Aged 18 - 25 and drawn from all walks of life, they're dedicating a year to supporting and inspiring children in schools, in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. We help them to do that most effectively, through training, but also through broadening their own career horizons.

In my experience, young women are savvy and under no illusions that the workplace is not geared towards them. We owe it to them not to sugar coat the reality and tell them anything is possible. It's much more supportive - and sisterly - to tell them about the pitfalls, and to share some of the challenges, if it will help more young women achieve their ambitions.

One of the #PledgeForParity accelerators is to illuminate the path to leadership by making career opportunities more visible to women. It's been a gradual awakening for me how symbolic my role is. I'd always thought that being a female leader in the charity sector wasn't unusual, but recent research by TPP Recruitment showed that the charity sector gender gap has doubled. Only 32 per cent of charity chief executives are female. It's depressing to realise that the young women on our Birmingham programme who were in awe of me being 'in charge' weren't actually far off the mark.

The campaign also highlights the need to challenge conscious and unconscious bias. As a leader, I struggle to find the balance between being nice and being respected and I don't think that applies as much to men. I've had numerous pejorative comments disguised as compliments. Apparently, I'm a 'force of nature' and when I mention that my daughter knows her own mind (as any self-respecting toddler does), I've been met with a wry laugh and 'I wonder where she gets that from?'

Research by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label illustrates the depth of the issues we're grappling with. When it asked 13 to-25-year-olds for their opinions on gender, it found that 78% associated 'gentle' with femininity, while only 23% associated it with masculinity. Conversely, 71% associated 'strong' with masculinity but only 23% with femininity.

The final 'elephant in the room' for me is the baby question: juggling family life and career. Coming back to work after maternity leave, I found a huge fascination among young female staff and our volunteers about how I make being a mum and a 'boss' work and I wondered why we don't talk about it in more frank terms. Being honest about the challenges was part of my motivation for doing Management Today's 'Power Mums interview'.

My key reflection on gender equality is that, as #PledgeForParity recognises, women can't achieve it alone. While it's important that we have spaces for women to share their concerns, unless we bring men into the conversation and make them an equal partner, nothing will materially change. As Jo Swinson, the new Chair of Maternity Action, said recently, 'nobody tells boys to choose between a career and being a dad'.

I went to the Care International UK #walkinhershoes event on Sunday 6 March where the International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, outlined the difference in her own family's experience: from her grandmother who was sent into domestic service at 14 to her own path - being the first in her family to go to university and ending up in the Cabinet. It's a huge difference between the generations, but we shouldn't take for granted that this change will continue apace.

#PledgeforParity is one way to help accelerate progress. The other is to continue to talk honestly about the realities of working and family life, with both women and men. It's only by working together that we will create a balanced, inclusive society that recognises everyone's contributions properly.