Women in leadership and why there’s a long way to go

Being YUSU Prez has showed some of the hurdles still to come

Image: Wikipedia

As the first woman YUSU president in roughly ten years, I’ve answered lots of gender-loaded questions: “are you a feminist?” “Are you a president who’s a woman, or a Woman President?” “Are you a role model for women?” Now I’m getting to the finish line, I think it’s fair that I do my best to answer these questions.

My experience at YUSU has been positive. I’ve experienced little sexism at work and it’s been a privilege to meet many inspiring people. For me, the University has also been good for gender equality. There are still challenges around the gender pay gap, women holding leadership roles, and providing support for ALL genders, not just men and women. Despite this, York’s Senior Management Team is more gender balanced than others nationally and from conversations with women in leadership roles, there’s trust that they’re treated similarly to their male counterparts.

Occasionally, things haven’t gone smoothly. This has proven to me that I’m a feminist. I’ve walked away from a gentleman at a dinner, called out inappropriate language from a man in a meeting and looked at someone like I’d bite their hand off if they ever patted me on the head again. So the answer to the first question is yes: I am a feminist.

My most frustrating encounters with sexism this year have actually been from students. It was students who asked what underwear I wore to work. Students who insisted my gender dictated my throwing ability. A student team who approached me in a club and asked if I wanted to have sex with them. Students who responded to my refusals by insisting I must be on my period. Students have made more comments about my weight, makeup, and sexual orientation than my policies, views on mental health or feelings about the TEF. Are these experiences because of my gender or my role? I have tried to not let my gender define my leadership, but actually other students have done that anyway. I have become a Woman President because I have had to defend myself against sexism and attacks and I have had to challenge them.

Am I a role model? While student sexism has been prevalent this year, the sexist voice that’s hardest to ignore is my own. Even clothes are a challenge: finding skirts the right length, tops that don’t show too much cleavage, and shoes that are smart but not painful is a night-mare. I feel pressure from myself and society to balance being young, and fun, with modest and smart. Life as a professional, public-facing woman is balanced on a knife edge. It’s a tipping scale of ‘thin enough to prevent judgement’ without subscribing to fad diets, because you want to be a role model for others. It’s being unemotional enough to thrive in a male-heavy boardroom, while not hiding emotion completely as we must stop being ashamed of it. When asked about my career ambitions, I find myself softening my goals, derailing them with ‘but maybe not if I have children’ or ‘my boyfriend’s job is important’. Being a woman in the workplace is a confusing jumbled mess of self-set goals and society set directions. I’ve tried to handle this year with humour and good judgements. To answer the final question: I hope women see me as a role model if they’re searching for one.

Moving forward, it’s important that women continue to take on leadership roles (if they want to). It’s important that in future generations young women won’t have to search for female role models because they’ll be obvious. If we can get this right, future generations of women who want to thrive professionally won’t have the same conflicts that I’ve had to navigate. We need to lead by example, stop shaming women leaders, and, importantly, we need everyone’s support in order for women to succeed

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