When I grow up I want to be…

A couple of months ago a colleague of old asked me to contribute some words to a blog she was writing on what I would say now to my 16 year old self (you can find her fab blog here)  Since then, I’ve been reflecting on those words, that blog and my own experience observing my teenage daughters and their friends as they navigate the rollercoaster of revision, exams, new GCSEs, (already) worrying about student debt and looking a bit embarrassed as relatives and friends ask them what they want to do ‘when they grow up’. (With the rise of automation and reports saying 85% of future jobs aren’t yet created, how do they answer that?) For me, one way to equip our young people for the future world of work is to give them the opportunity to build those critical thinking and creative skills, to be great with people and to be resilient – probably far more than I have ever had to be (and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham is doing some fantastic research into building the skills needed for the future). But it’s tough when you’re 16 to know all of this. As noted by experts, young people are under more pressure now than they have ever been before. Increasing numbers of under-18s are suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other conditions. In addition, more are self-harming and attempting suicide. School stress, social media and pressures to “succeed” are among the key reasons behind this rise.

As the next generation contemplate the reality of the 100 year life and the notion that they will most likely have multiple jobs, doing many different things, and with the need to constantly retrain and learn, we need to give them every opportunity and support as they start out on their working lives.

But I also recognise, as a middle-aged woman, that it’s not really for me to speak on what I think young people need. So, for this guest blog, I invited an amazing young woman, Rose, to tell her story. I met Rose via a terrific organisation, Further my Future, and they, as was I, were impressed by her tenacity, her desire to grow and learn and her bright, enquiring mind.

At 16 years old, I was in my last year of school; juggling GCSE exams, revision, college interviews and career options. I didn’t know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do and I felt like the only option I had was to do what everyone else was doing, and go to college and then university. A few more exams down the line – and after countless all-nighters, I hated the education system, I was stressed, anxious and highly irritable! I wanted any way out and couldn’t stand the thought of going through the same repetitive process again in college.

Summer of that year came around and with exams finally done, I had some time to myself. I thought about my future and the career choices that I had made and it just didn’t feel right. It was that uncertainty that motivated my intensive research and desperate visit to the school’s careers advisor. During my meeting with her, we came to the conclusion that school, college, and uni were definitely not for me. In fact, none of the typical and “accepted” paths of education suited me. We explored other options together, one of which was apprenticeships. That idea really stuck!

I loved the idea of being hands-on with my learning and getting the training that I wanted at a young age. So, I spent my summer holidays filling out applications and preparing for interviews, but to no avail. The majority of my applications were unsuccessful, and for those that were, I didn’t get further than the interview. The worst part was that I wasn’t getting any real feedback. All the employers would say that they were looking for someone who’s older and think that I’m too young… but that’s it. I felt as though all my hard work was going to waste and that I should stop trying because my age wasn’t something that I could change. But through that process, I learned more about myself than I did throughout my entire time at school. I learned what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I enjoy and what I’m good at, and finally what I would like to improve. I didn’t let people’s stereotypical opinions of me, as a hormonal teenage girl, stop me from accomplishing my goals.

October ’17 through to March ’18, I did a traineeship in order to gain the experience that is so valued by employers. Within those short 6 months, I learned everything from incredibly important life skills such as money budgeting, to event organisation and employability. Along with that, though, came a fear of not knowing what will happen next. For those that went to college, they knew that they would most likely be in college for the next 2 to 3 years, whereas my schedule changed every week and one phone call could flip everything on its head. I worked 6 days a week at one point, at 4 different work placements, trying to learn and grow in as many ways as I could. Although I was hardly getting paid, I persevered and made myself realise that the experience that I was gaining was way more valuable and that it wasn’t all about the money. And that is what got me here, 10 months later. Having met the most incredible people, gained heaps of experience and finally secured my dream apprenticeship with absolutely amazing employers, I think it’s safe to say that it was all totally worth it!

There’s a lot of pressure on young people to achieve. The new 9-1 GCSE specification proves just that, as the A* is no longer the highest grade. Many students, including myself, feel as though they have under-achieved because of this, when in reality, they’ve obtained very good grades!

I think that so many people are at a disadvantage with their learning due to there being only one method of teaching. In my case, I can’t learn the traditional way: sitting down with someone talking at me for an hour is just tedious.

Others, like myself, were completely unaware of what’s available to them. I didn’t know what traineeships or apprenticeships were until I reached out to the careers advisor. Nor did I know that I could get help and advice on employment, education and training through the Youth Employability Service and the National Careers Service for free. In my opinion, no practical and genuinely helpful sessions were offered at school to inform about the many services available to young people.

If you are a student, take the time to know the different paths and options open to you. If your school or college has a careers advisor, I strongly suggest organising a meeting with them. If not, get in contact with your local youth support services but most importantly, believe in yourself! Be persistent and follow your dreams – even when people tell you that you can’t.

We need workplaces with people from diverse backgrounds and that includes education as well as race, gender and age. You’ll be surprised at just what young people are capable of!

Rose is currently doing an apprenticeship in digital marketing at Liftmusic which combines hands-on work in the workplace with one day a week training.
 A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually

Does that Make Sense?

Last week we celebrated a 100 years of the Representation of the People Act in the UK, an Act that, through electoral reform, began to give voice to women (and all men) through the ballot box. Recent months have also given witness to a depressingly sordid account of women’s experiences in the workplace: be it in the film industry, parliament or as women trying to earn a living in an economy where low pay is endemic, zero hour contracts rife and being told to dress in short skirts and high heels to satisfy the needs of powerful men is the best you can get.

Having voice is a central tenant of any democracy; the means by which a country’s citizens get to have their say on matters that affect them. (Of course, the most effective way to give voice is much debated and something I will leave to others more qualified than I to speak on.) I was fascinated to learn in last week’s celebrations of the existence of Suffragists, the women who, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, believed they would achieve this end using peaceful means – if they were seen as intelligent, polite and law abiding then women would prove themselves responsible enough to participate fully in politics. We now know that Emmeline Pankhurst became impatient with this ‘respectable’, gradualist approach and so the Suffragette movement was born under the motto ‘deeds not words’ and a more militant approach was adopted.

Reflecting last week – on voice, on words and deeds – also caused me to reflect on my own words and deeds and on how I use my ‘voice’ to best effect, particularly in the workplace. How do I, as a woman, express myself? How do I assert my authority and influence the decision making process, whilst remaining inclusive, ‘warm’, open and good-natured? As a woman I am only too aware of the classic dilemma we often face; too assertive and I’m classified as bossy and aggressive, too timid and I’m not taken seriously, my ‘voice’ is easily dismissed. Something I was much less aware of, but which a good friend and colleague recently pointed out to me was how, in meetings, I often finish what I’ve been saying with the question “does that make sense?” In my head I am using that question to connect with my audience, to check-in on understanding. However, what my friend pointed out (and it’s something psychologists have researched) is that, as a woman, in asking this question, I am communicating that I, the speaker, am not sure myself in what I’ve just said. I think what I have said might have been incoherent; so rather than check-in on understanding because I’ve communicated a novel or complex idea that needs time to ponder and digest, I give licence for my audience to think that what I’ve said actually doesn’t make sense! And I’ve discovered, that in women, these verbal ticks are hard-wired.

How often have you as a woman (or observed other women doing) stood up to make a presentation and apologise for taking the audience’s time? Reassure them that you’re nearly through your slide deck? How often have you started a sentence with a disclaimer, “of course, you’re all much more expert on this than I.” (In fact, rather ironically, I’ve even done that myself in this blog.) Research tells us, that men, as they are by default held in high status, are perceived as both warm and competent from the get-go. Women, as history and the present shows, don’t have that automatic ‘status’. So, for women in the workplace, and in society more generally, whilst these hard-wired speech patterns shouldn’t matter, they do.

As I started this working week with this new awareness, I made a commitment to myself to start re-wiring those verbal ticks. I want to find a way of communicating that doesn’t begin by apologising to my audience or finish by undermining myself. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop being myself; I will still seek other’s opinions and insights, I will still be collaborative and open, I will still seek out connection. But I will do this in a way that does not diminish my own competence, experience and point of view.

Does that make sense? 😉