Change the Rules, Don’t Change Yourself
One of my favourite quotes is from William Blake; “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” It helped me make the decision to found Irise and start working to build the kind of society I want to live in.
As a young woman it can sometimes feel like there’s a whole list of things you have to change about yourself before you’re ready for leadership. You need to be more confident, louder, less anxious etc. You don’t. You are already well equipped to lead and your leadership is necessary. Of course, you will learn along the way and develop your skills but many of the things that frustrate you about yourself are actually the key to you becoming a transformative leader.
It might seem that the system wants and rewards people who are more aggressive, louder and generally more certain of their own abilities and the truth is that there is lots of research to show that it does. But, the system is broken. It does not work for many women, as the small fraction of women at the top testifies. It is also not working more broadly; the world faces the unprecedented challenge of climate change, brought about by a model of growth and a mindset of exponential gain that is unsustainable.
Most women know first-hand how unfair the current system is. We know that it discriminates based on stereotypes and that while women might be the largest group affected, we are not the only group. It may be true that we struggle to find the confidence to lead but is it really a surprise in a system that was built by and is still largely dominated by men? Of course, we feel anxious when we are trying to operate in a world that was not built for us and that we know to be fundamentally unfair!
It can feel like you are faced with the insurmountable challenge of changing yourself to realise your ambitions but there is another way. You can change the system. You are part of the largest group disadvantaged by the current system that can claim a shared identity and purpose. Young women see the flaws that those who have been consistently rewarded and served by the system will struggle to see, and the number of highly educated, skilled women is rapidly increasing. Even some of the things you think you need to change about yourself will become assets in a quest to alter the way things are done.; a more collaborative approach can help win over hearts and minds and build the consensus needed for long term change.
A movement of young women can realise a vision of a fairer, more sustainable society by choosing to change the rules rather than follow them.
So, take every opportunity to change the system rather than change yourself to meet its requirements. Connect and support like-minded people, keep the pink hair if it makes you feel like you, don’t apologise for changing a nappy on the out of hours conference call, and collaborate rather than compete if you are more comfortable working that way. It won’t always be easy but it will pave the way for others to choose an alternative path and if enough of us do it we will transform the way things are done forever.
Emily has been working full time as CEO of Irise since she was 25, growing it from a grassroots group with a £10,000 grant into an international NGO with 16 staff across two continents, working in partnership with governments and universities to realise period equality for everyone. In 2019 she received the Power Together Award from the Global Women Political Leaders Forum in recognition of Irise’s contribution to creating a global movement to end period poverty and shame. She is also a co-convener on the UK government’s Period Poverty Task Force. Emily believes that when young women lead they can transform the world.