The fight for gender equality is far from over. While significant strides have been made in that direction, women around the world continue to confront an array of challenges – from systemic discrimination to unequal pay and inadequate access to education and healthcare.
Activists are pushing for policy changes. Initiatives such as microfinance programs, business incubators and mentorship networks are helping women start and grow their own ventures, and multiple organizations are highlighting women’s struggles to build support for gender equality and help break down biases. But how much progress have we made in the pursuit of an ideal world, and how can we do better?
Edwina Dunn, Founder of The Female Lead, a non-profit organization based in the United Kingdom, asked herself similar questions back in 2015. Having been a data science entrepreneur most of her working life, she went on to found the company with her husband. Her vision was fourfold: to dig deeper into the battles women fight today; tackle under-researched areas to influence government policies; carry out educational programs in primary and secondary schools; and inspire young girls by amplifying the voices of successful female leaders.
“Working in data and technology, every boardroom that I walked into was wall-to-wall men. I saw no women in positions of power,” she tells The CEO Magazine. “Female role models are still absent in some professions. With The Female Lead, I wanted to provide visibility to women.”
Dunn draws from her experience
When discussing inspiration, we often fail to address the significant role of external factors. Issues like limited access to opportunities or a lack of social and familial support can severely impact one’s ability to feel inspired.
“These issues are real,” Dunn says. “And the lack of awareness of these difficulties is part of the problem. Often, I hear men say, ‘But, so many girls go to university and get the same degrees. In fact, they get more degrees. So, what’s wrong?’ And that’s why it becomes extremely important to make sure we tell the full stories of women.”
An incident from her own experiences serves as an example. “I was working really closely with a retailer and, at the time, I had young children and I worked very hard, but there were certain rules I had to abide by. A senior manager told me, ‘You need to be in this meeting which is every Monday at 7:30 in the morning.’
“It was two hours away from my home. I told him that I couldn’t do it. He asked me why not. I said, ‘Well, I have children, and we have to wait for the nanny to get them to school.’ He said, ‘Oh. Well, send someone else.’
“And that was it. It was a job that I loved. But you have to draw a line somewhere. It never occurred to the man – who, by the way, had a child – that someone has to see his child off to school, too. He had a wife who did all of that for him. It is not an even platform for women and we need to acknowledge that.
“Women end up focusing on housekeeping, instead of long-term investments. They end up being paid less because they have gaps in their careers for multiple reasons. They want some flexibility because potentially they’re looking after their children, potentially they’re looking after elderly parents. The lack of fair play at work means that there’s a disillusionment that creeps in, that makes women say, ‘Is it worth it?’. To stop leaders from believing that these issues aren’t real, we need to bring these to the surface in a really powerful way.”
It is not an even platform for women and we need to acknowledge that.
The Female Lead is stepping up to the plate
A goal of The Female Lead is to discover the driving forces and barriers that affect women’s careers. The organization has conducted interviews with world leaders, notable scientists, award-winning performers, celebrated authors and many other professionals. By sharing their experiences and demonstrating different paths to success and fulfillment, Dunn hopes to encourage young girls to pursue leadership roles.
Through a dedicated campaign called, ‘The Female Lead Society’, they collaborate with various organizations to provide free books and educational programs to help young women overcome the pressures of society and social media; and to help them identify and value their skills at a young age.
Apart from providing direct support to female students, Dunn’s organization has also stepped up to conduct research that can influence government policies. The fundamental values center around utilizing data and research to drive the mission forward. Since The Female Lead’s inception in 2015, Dunn’s team has explored areas that have historically received limited attention, aiming to address the most critical challenges confronting girls and women today. They have been providing valuable insights that can facilitate the development and improvement of government policies, offering informed guidance and recommendations wherever possible.
The lack of fair play at work means that there’s a disillusionment that creeps in, that makes women say, ‘Is it worth it?’
The Female Lead maps out the road ahead
“We’ve had enough male leadership solutions,” Dunn says. “What I would love to see is this community of women recommending the pathway to a more equal world.” After publishing ‘We Rise By Lifting Others’, a book featuring stories of women from around the world, Dunn is now working on her next book which will highlight everything the organization learned from these stories and what they believe they should do next. The book will be out in 2024.
A new survey by The Female Lead, called Fulfilment Finder, is also helping women gain insight into their unique abilities.
“I am interested in the science of what fulfillment looks like,” Dunn explains. “This survey helps women understand what their special skills are, while also helping them describe how they think about life and work – not only to themselves, but also to others. It takes about seven minutes. I encourage people to take it because it’s going to help them, and it’s going to help us present the voice of women.”