Featured

Opinion: The Glamour UK Interview That Awoke My Earth Activist Side

I always thought I lived as environmentally consciously as I could. I don’t buy plastic bottles and litter pick when I can; I drive a hybrid electric car, use reusable nappies for my baby, vote for local Government candidates who I think will bring in a greener economy and I petition against policies I think are damaging to our planet.

But when I interviewed New York model and sustainability campaigner Renee Elizabeth Peters for Glamour magazine a new wave of frustration about politicians’ inaction over climate change crept over me.

In the story Renee argues that living sustainably is only possible if you’re privileged with enough ‘time, accessibility and money’ to do so.

She was referring to the fact that for many people living on low-incomes, juggling several jobs on top of life’s usual pressures, living sustainably is out of reach. They don’t have the money to buy organic food or clothes, the knowledge or time to invest in planning more vegetarian or vegan meals and they can’t necessarily afford to live in a neighbourhood where waste is collected or where the air and land isn’t polluted.

I’d agree with her. Since trying to go more green this year I have been feeling pretty stressed and overwhelmed. It comes at a time when I’m striving to set up my own freelance business and earn an income while coping with my baby’s sleepless nights all while managing the daily grind of being the best mum, wife, friend and daughter I can be. Not to mention the fact that I’m going green solo in a house of three.

The result is I find I have little time to research and implement greener practices around the home as I’m tired and would rather play with my baby than investigate a plastic and toxic free household cleaning alternative.

The fact is I’m privileged enough live in a nice neighbourhood where good recycling is the norm and I afford that milk bottle delivery instead of buying milk cartons.

But what about those who can’t? What about those who are even more exhausted than I am from dealing with severe health complaints, work 12 hour shifts, or lack the access to information and education to be more green?

I have tried hard to be more green in 2019, but I’ve found it difficult while juggling my business and being a busy mum. But what about those who are less privileged than me?

In the Glamour article, Renee relieves the intense pressure upon individuals to shift the emphasis on to governments.

Instead she asks what they could do be doing to enact policy that would make a more significant difference to climate change.

As part of the story I had to immerse myself in research on climate change and interrogate what the UK Government was doing to stop it.

I was shocked to realise that there were so many areas of policy that could really make an impact and angered to see such slow progress despite our politicians knowing for 30 years environmental catastrophe was heading our way.

I always supported policies that enabled more renewable energy and been horrified at our Government for allowing fracking in the UK. But I hadn’t, for example, considered that subsidies for organic farming rather than dairy farming, which fuels climate change, could be a progressive policy.

I hadn’t also appreciated how modernising our housing stock to make it energy efficient had stalled because of a lack of political will. And I’d also never felt so angry about the woeful lack of responsibility manufacturers and supermarkets currently have after interviewing Women’s Environmental Network co-director Beth Summers, who is campaigning for more affordable eco-friendly products to be accessible to us all.

I should think that’s the case for many people. We simply don’t have the time to consider these things in the depth they deserve because we are too busy making a living and let’s face it – trying to live our lives as happily as can be with those who are most important to us.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary politicians have access to all the information and they are in power to make the right decisions on our behalf. That’s what they are employed to do.

But the buck has to stop somewhere. And when you’re in power you have to make uncomfortable decisions that may not make you popular.

Yes they are often at the whim of public opinion, which can be limiting in an age of increasing populism. And yes some politicians in power also chose to deny that climate change is happening despite compelling evidence that shows even modest C02 emissions could set off a cascade of melting ice, warming seas and dying forests could send the Earth into a “hothouse” state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be “futile”.

So eschewing that plastic bottle and saving your crisp packets for recycling, is a virtuous act, but it is only scratching the surface.

It’s politicians that can truly facilitate a more sustainable lifestyle for us, so in the absence of them acting on the issue, the single most effective thing you can do is call upon them to do more.

The fact is the future of our planet is up to us if we act collectively and engage in politics. How do we do that? In the article Renee gives some good pointers, but here’s some more ideas to start a climate revolution.

One way could be to approach the candidates of key marginal seats in the upcoming local and general elections to discuss whether they would support serious climate-related legislation.

You can ask them on social media, by email, or by going to one of their surgeries. Don’t worry about constructing a sophisticated argument, a few lines spoken from the heart will do. You can find your MP here. Here’s another good website for knowing how to target your representative.

An anti-fracking march. Credit Campaign Against Climate Change.

Supporters of climate-friendly policies then need to leaflet and door knock these constituencies to support them – here’s a few local groups if you want to help, but there will be more.

In doing this a serious grassroots conversation could sprout, turning it into an election issue. With a large group of people outside parliament and inside poised to lobby for the necessary transformative legislation on climate mitigation and adaptation, real change could come.

You could also email or message your favourite clothes brands and tell them how you love their garments, but you don’t love their sustainability practices and want them to do more. You can find out who is hot and who is not in the fashion industry on the Good On You app.

Some of these ideas could only take 10-15 minutes, some may take 10 hours. But given that our environmental impacts are so long-lasting, the future is the politics we make today.

Solving climate change is about power, money, and political will. By adding your voice to growing calls for climate justice you can help change the political will of those in power with all the money. So that’s 10 minutes or 10 hours well spent for a future that’s less impacted by climate change in my opinion.

Gina Martin: ‘We All Have A Role To Play In Calling Out Upskirting’


“This isn’t about me — this is about every woman and girl who has messaged me for the past year”. 


Meet Gina Martin: the everyday woman who made upskirting illegal in England and Wales. She also just so happens to be a most unconventional and outspoken activist who is leading the way in what modern, inclusive protest means.

It all started in 2017 when a man took photos up her skirt without permission at a London music festival. Outraged by the police’s decision not to prosecute, she began to campaign for change not just for herself, but for the thousands of other victims of sexual assault, whose voices are often ignored and belittled on a daily basis.

In a cruel twist – and a sign of the struggle women face when they dare to speak up – she was subjected to hundreds of attacks through social media – some as appalling as threats to rape her. She valiantly fought on however and now, seven months later, upskirting is an official gender-inclusive offence.

But true change won’t happen overnight, or as a result of the law; certainly not when one in ten men sadly don’t think upskirting is sexual harassment. According to a GQ and YouGov poll, some men going as far as buying shoe cameras to take non-consensual pictures up women’s skirts.

It’s a huge social issue that she’s determined to confine to the dustbin.

So how does she feel when people play down sexual harassment as a laddish prank and how does she react when women don’t speak up for fear of being seen as ‘boring’?

“I feel like in society we reinforce ideas that make women feel judged, unsupported and blamed for the majority of what happens to them, so it’s not surprising that women don’t feel empowered to stand up for themselves.

“People separate upskirting from the bigger picture and see it as ‘not an important crime’.

“But it is part of systematic and huge problem that, at its worst, results in violence against women and death at an extraordinary rate.

“So when people tell me solving a smaller part of a bigger problem is not important I remind them that it’s only possible to solve something systematic by focusing on each small part.

“Then I ask them what they’ve done to make the world a better place!”

An unlikely hero inspiring other victims and highlighting it can ‘happen to anyone’

How would you react if you saw someone upskirting? A BBC documentary shows how normalised upskirting is

Dressed in bright eye-catching clothes Gina, 27, who lives London with her boyfriend, Jordy, and rescue tortoise Gary Tortellini, is an unusually regular-looking colourful campaigner amid the grey of Westminster.

Her ‘ordinariness’ is one of her appeals: in one of her latest Instagram posts she is humbled by the support and affection from her followers, saying: “I have been overwhelmed and I am cried out. 💗 …”

Her normality serves to highlight how an issue like upskirting is so prolific in society. In fact girls as young as 10 are now victims. Two thirds of girls and women ages 14-21 have been sexually harassed in public according to a poll by Plan International UK.

But the social acceptance of the issue is profound.

When Holly Willoughby was upskirted on a red carpet while holding a #TimesUp rose to campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace, she drew attention to the multitude of similar photos taken everyday of celebrity women that mostly go unnoticed as anything untoward.

The question of why the issue is so normalised is one many a commentator has tried to answer. Writing in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman said:

“There is nothing sexy about a blurry camera phone shot of an oblivious stranger’s vagina, unless you find humiliation sexy.

“This is about young women being shamed for going out and having fun, and men wanting to tell them they have power over them.”

The campaign carries on

With the bill through Parliament, is it time for Gina to rest?

Not quite. During her 18 month campaign, Gina received some sickening social media abuse, but sought solace from supporters online.

“My strength came from the hundred of messages I received from young girls and women who have been upskirted and feel lost and humiliated and has no support.

“That kept me going even when I felt completely out of my depth.

Her experience has led her to encourage her many Instagram followers to send messages of support to fellow upskirting victims seeking justice.

Along with these social acts of compassion, an education programme for schools, colleges and universities on social media awaits.

Gina Martin
Gina’s campaign has just started

And Gina thinks we all can help get involved.

“We ALL have a role to play.

“We should all be talking to our kids about the reality of the world, social media and the internet. But we should also remember to never make assault the victim’s problem.

“Banning skirts is a straight road to victim blaming, and we must educate in a progressive and positive way.

“We also all need to better bystanders.

“Especially men – who hold a lot of privilege and who other men will listen to more than women – need to be calling out sexist behaviour, and if they see upskirting.

“Because this is not just a problem for cis women. Trans people face a lot of this due to cis people’s morbid fascination with their bodies.

“It’s also a problem with men in kilts (why scotland made it illegal 10 years ago) and we need to stop politicising people’s bodies and ensure more legislation is gender neutral.”

GQ and YouGov

What to do if you’ve been subjected to upskirting

In the first instance, Gina wants you to speak up.

“By speaking up you’re speaking up for every woman who has felt the same way as you and it sends a message to everyone that hears you that this kind of thing is not okay at all.”

That may feel a hard thing to do, but Gina promises messages of support in the form of herself and her Instagram community.

“Sexual harrassment does not have to be part of you life. It’s does not have to be ‘just the way it is’, and if you don’t like something, you can change it. I am living proof of that”, she says.

The next, and most important thing to do, is to report the crime.

You can find details of your local police station on the Police.UK website.

Further advice is available from Victim Support.

How To Shop Sustainably Like A Fashion Pro

The January sales have hit and with it my New Year’s resolution not to buy any more clothes has taken a beating.

At the start of the year I made a commitment not to be so wasteful after seeing one too many reports on the severity of the climate change threat.

But with temptation all around, holding on to my particular resolve to buy less clothes is being sorely tested, especially for a secret shopaholic like me.

So my question is: if I do shop, how can shop sustainably and who are the most environmentally friendly brands to buy from?

Remind me, why do I have to be careful?

Did you hear how microplastic fibres in clothes are poisoning our oceans? On average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. Up to 40% of them go on to enter rivers, lakes and oceans where they have the potential to poison the food chain.

Unfortunately buying clothes that have been made by recycled plastic, like Patagonia and Polartec do, could be worse than doing nothing at all.

So what type of material should I avoid?

Understanding the types you should avoid is easy: they’re largely man-made synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate, spandex, latex, Orlon and Kevlar.

But understanding the scale of how prevalent these fabrics are is quite surprising.

Take that shirt on your back. There’s a 50/50 chance it’s made from cotton, which when made conventionally, can take 20,000 litres of water to produce one single t-shirt or a pair of jeans. If you didn’t already know, wasting water is bad for the environment.

It also involves the use of synthetic fertilisers and toxic pesticides that can poison wildlife and rivers and kill an estimated 16,000 people a year. Not to mention the questionable ethics and humanity issues involved in the majority of cotton production.

A cotton worker. Synthetic fertilisers and toxic pesticides kill an estimated 16,000 people a year. Credit: Developmentnews.in

30 second guide to sustainable fabrics

Understanding the true sustainability value of apparent eco-friendly fabrics can be confusing and, quite frankly, requires a Phd.

But in a nutshell, look out for the stamp of approval from the Soil Association, the UK’s certification body, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), or Oeko-Tex, which checks processes for harmful chemicals.

Nothing can beat organic cotton’s benefits for ‘people and planet’, according to The Soil Association.

Other sustainable fabrics are organic wool, bamboo lyocell (TENCEL), recycled cashmere, hemp, denim and recycled polyester (rPET).

Chemicals such as azo-dyes and fluorocarbons in waterproof clothing are also cut out of many sustainable brands, because they can cause skin irritation and damage the environment.

For a more comprehensive understanding of the so-called sustainability value of certain fabrics, read to the bottom of this page.

A selection of the more sustainable brands

Unfortunately many of the more affordable brands do not use 100% organic or sustainable fabrics, but some are making an effort in the right direction. Here’s a pick and mix of the brands doing it a bit better than the rest.

Patagonia.

Hauled over the coals for its ethical practices in 2015, Patagonia remains one of the most respected outdoor brands. It tackled consumer culture head on with its ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ ad in New York Times. With its Worn Wear programme, which restores the brand’s pieces to good as new, it is discouraging customers from buying more. It also uses sustainable fabrics in its range including Yulex natural rubber in their wetsuits, which apparently reduces C02 emissions by up to 80% in the manufacturing process.

This lightweight, limited edition organic cotton T-shirt uses no GMO seeds or toxic pesticides.

Seasalt.

The Cornish-based brand known for its iconic bretons, easy-to-wear tunics and practical clothes uses organic cotton from several different countries and back in 2005, they were the first fashion company ever to gain Soil Association certification for its products.

The Sailor Shirt is Seasalt’s take on a classic Breton top

Lucy and Yak

A look around their website is like being joyfully smacked with a colour gun. These people know how to create a cool corduroy dress responsibly.

Lucy and Yak organic
Organic Cotton Original Dungarees by Lucy and Yak

Beaumont Organic

This Manchester-born brand’s garments are made from organic, fair-trade and eco-friendly fabrics, with most incorporating GOTS-certified cotton. The brand specialises in produces comfy casual dresses, slouchy sweaters and tees.

Beaumont Organic
Nail the transition from office to evening in the Mila Lyocell And Cotton Shirt 

People Tree

Relaxed, pretty outfits to more luxurious garments are a staple of People Tree. Emma Watson once collaborated with them. If you buy from here, you can be reassured that they are made from environmentally friendly fabrics like organic cotton and wood-pulped Tencel.

This V&A Poppy Print jumpsuit is one of those pieces you can wear with sneakers on off-duty days or sleek heels for evenings out. 100% organic cotton.

Thought

The London-based company, formerly known as Braintree Clothing is made from natural, recycled and organic fabrics and make outfits for men and women. They use azo-free dyes too.

Thought’s soft organic cotton jersey skirt featuring a spot print.

Sustainable clothing for those with slightly deeper pockets

Finnesterre

If you’re a surfer worth his or her salt, you’ll know this brand. They don’t just have an effortlessly cool look, they have a heart for the planet too. Not surprising given much of their free time is spent in the sea, so ocean plastics are always ‘front of mind’. Their range contains organic cotton t-shirts and jackets with recycled polyester insultant. They aimed to eradicate single-use plastic from their supply chain by the end of 2018.

Designed exclusively for Finisterre by illustrator Gareth Sanger, the Forelsket Tee is inspired by cold water surf adventures, and takes its name from the Norwegian word for the euphoric feeling of falling in love. 100% organic cotton.

Outland Denim

When Meghan Markle wore a pair of the Harriet jean in 2018, the brand sold out in hours. The company pride themselves on their ethical values not just their investment in organic cotton and recycled packaging. Founder James Bartle started it to offer female victims of human trafficking a sustainable career path as a seamstress.

The Dusty jean by Outland Denim is cut from organic cotton to feel good with every wear.

The brands that need to work harder despite steps in the right direction

H&M 

The Swedish brand guarantees that 59% of the cotton it sources is ‘sustainably sourced’ in its Conscious range. By that it means either organic cotton, recycled or cotton sourced through its Better Cotton initiative. It hopes to make all of its clothing sustainable by 2030, but this feels like a long time away and the brand’s sustainable plan has room for improvement.

CONSCIOUS. Jumper in a soft, fine knit containing some wool with a V-neck, a visible seam front and back, dropped shoulders and long sleeves. The jumper is made partly from recycled polyester.

Marks and Spencer

This high-street stalwart and favourite of Mums all over talks a big talk in its Plan A manifesto. But surprisingly appears to aim low when it claims that by 2025 it wants to have increased the proportion of Fairtrade, organic and recycled sources to just 25%. It claims it aims to source 100% of cotton from ‘more sustainable sources’ by April this year. In good news though, the brand says its raised £21M for people living in extreme poverty through its Shwopping recycling scheme with Oxfam.  

The brand claims a lot of its Kidswear range is made from sustainable cotton.

Primark

The brand were voted ‘not good enough’ by Good On You website in 2018. However, according to their website they have invested in what it calls ‘sustainable cotton’ since 2017. That’s investing in educating farmers in India and Pakistan how to grow and produce cotton with less fertilisers and pesticides. The garments in this range are mainly in pyjamas (one in three pyjamas in the UK are bought in Primark apparently). Just be careful and look out for the Primark Cares label when rooting through those hangers.

You can read more about Primark’s ethics here.

So if I buy more organic or sustainable fabrics can I have a guilt-free shopping fix?

Simply put: no. There’s no silver bullet for shopping sustainably without leaving some imprint on this planet.

We need to change our relentless throw-away consumer culture for good if we are to make a real difference, or simply, mend more, buy less and buy better.

One final thought I’ll end on it’s that producing clothes is entirely dependent on a healthy planet.

More than 90% of cotton growers live in countries that often lack the infrastructure, preparedness and political will to respond to climate change challenges.

So it’s the least we can do to be a bit more mindful when we shop, if you still want the world at your feet and the shirt on your back in years to come.

One last tip

If you want to know about which brands are better for the environment, try the Good On You app. It gives you the ethical low-down in the palm of your hand.

A deeper look at the more sustainable fabrics to look for

According to The Soil Association nothing can beat organic cotton’s benefits for ‘people and planet’. Organic fibres are grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers, toxic pesticides, genetic modification and uses less water then the non-organic process. It’s more ethical for the workers too.

Other sustainable fabrics are organic wool, although it depends who you speak to. Wool is a byproduct of the meat industry, so some campaigners will always support a boycott. However it’s natural, hardy and potentially biodegradable so has greater eco-credentials.

Bamboo can be highly sustainable if grown in the right way, but most bamboo fabrics are a form of rayon where the manufacturing process is highly intensive and involves harmful chemicals. The slightly more sustainable version of bamboo fabric is bamboo lyocell (TENCEL)

Brands increasingly make garments from eco-friendly fabrics, such as Tencel, made from wood pulp. Recycled cashmere, hemp, denim and recycled polyester (PET) also tick sustainable boxes.


How To Make An Individual Difference to Climate Change

Ever felt completely overwhelmed by climate change and unsure how you can make a difference?

In a game-changing report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) – a United Nations agency, warned the world has just 12 years to reverse global warming.

It said there’s a 93% chance we’re tumbling toward a world that is 5 degrees celsius warmer by the end of the century – just two years away.

That’s far beyond the 1.5 degrees estimated as a plausible goal to contain the type of global warming that could cause “a mass extinction event…by the end of this century. Unnerving for anyone with a heartbeat.

Climate change is an issue I’ve avidly followed since it hit our collective conscious 30 years ago, but since having a child I feel even more responsible to raise the next generation in a sustainable way.

What’s being done about it?

To reach the 1.5 degree target we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions to reach a net output of zero by 2030. We also need a way to remove future greenhouse gases from the air.

Scientists are exploring using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, planting more trees by afforestation and reforestation and seasoning the oceans with iron dust creating algae blooms that could take carbon dioxide out of the air and thereby cool the planet.

Other strategies include community scale programmes focussing on land use, energy used in the building sector, transportation and infrastructure (paving).

But these carbon removal technologies are still in their infancy and a coherent global climate change strategy does not exist.

President Trump has also undermined efforts by mocking the evidence, preferring instead to pull the US out of the Paris international agreement and causing chaos this January by cutting back the US Environmental Protection Agency.

What can I do about it?

Reducing your carbon footprint
Credit Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas. Environmental Research Papers

You may feel there’s no point in taking individual action if governments don’t commit to a more equitable and sustainable society.

What difference can one person make in an ocean of humanity?

Yet there are profound ways to make a difference. The only problem is how confronting they are.

According to a study by Lund University, the greatest impact individuals can make to climate change is having one fewer child.

The next best actions are living car-free, avoiding long flights and eating a plant-based diet.

Lead author Seth Wynes said: “For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of C02 equivalent a year.

These actions reduce emissions many times more than accepted green activities, such as recycling (which is 4 times less effective than a plant-based diet) or using low energy light bulbs (8 times less effective).

However, the researchers found government advice and school textbooks rarely mention these high impact individual actions.

But it’s so hard changing my lifestyle to be green

Green living
Making green resolutions are hard – everyday I chuck out one box of recycling. I think my son is equally appalled.

Yes it is. We’re so conditioned to accept our modern day practices of eating roast beef on a Sunday and flying abroad on holiday that it’s an anathema to change such ingrained habits.

Not to mention the choice to have children. As a woman grateful and fortunate enough to have one child I accept how galling preventing that would be.

Calculating the actual difference you’ll make by making a lifestyle change can also be thwart with difficulty.

Consider not drinking dairy; it can be paralysing when you consider the implications of another alternative: almond milk as an example – mostly grown in drought-hit California – needs millions of litres of water to be produced.

Nevertheless, always one to accept a challenge,  I’m going to give living a more green lifestyle a go as far as I possibly can.

That’s going green throughout my home, with the products I use, the travel I make, the food I eat and the energy I consume.

That’s no small test. Every day I chuck out one box of recycling. We also consume meat and take air travel as much as the next person.

So I’ll be taking a more realistic approach to going green. No patronising and no nonsense.

I’ll be trying to navigate the complicated nuances of the advantages of apparent green activities, such as using cloth nappies compared to disposable ones, when balanced against other environmental impacts for that product, like harvesting and production costs.

I’ll also be celebrating women and men who are making a difference to a more sustainable planet along the way.

You can follow my progress on Instagram here, using the #realgreenmum and on this blog.

Call it a New Year’s vow, call it a list, call it what you like, but this year I’m making a conscious resolution to leave a lighter footprint on planet earth.

Perhaps the best way to describe it my change game for the planet. Who’s with me?

resolutions blackboard
I’ve set our family some ambitious green targets for this year. What’s yours?

10 Tips on Leading a Women’s Network

At the 2016 Women in Engineering event at the RNLI, which I devised and delivered as chair of the Women’s Network. Pictured with fellow spokeswoman Lucy Devall, Innovation Officer at Bournemouth Arts University.

1.  A squad of like-minded souls can help you achieve your dreams and goals

Women’s networks are not just about inspiring, motivating, learning from each other and challenging the status quo;  they can help boost your mood, give you confidence and give perspective to the decisions that lay ahead.

In fact, surrounding yourself with the right people is the fastest way to success according to evidence by the Equality of Opportunity Project.

It’s something I found at as RNLI Women’s Network Chair. Being with positive, driven and progressive men and women from all backgrounds not only stretched my thinking and developed my professional skills; they inspired me to pursue my goals and overcome challenges.

2. Be prepared: there will be critics

More often than not I meet women and men who, just because they don’t see inequality or haven’t experienced it, simply don’t think it’s a problem. Some people will question why a women’s network needs to exist, others will confuse you for man-hating.

But not experiencing discrimination yourself does not mean that it doesn’t happen.

A fact sheet for your team to field questions can help. Here’s some to get you started.

Pregnancy- and maternity-related discrimination are still very much in evidence and sexual harassment at work also remains a serious problem. Half of UK women have been sexually harassed at work, facing very poor outcomes for reporting it.

We have grown up in a culture that has historically constructed successful leaders as male. Anything other than this breaks the norm, so that male leaders are unconsciously seen as commanding and competitive, but females are bossy or socially deviant.

Women’s career confidence, aspirations and progression diminishes so much as they move through their career.A lack of female role models and sponsors, particularly in certain industries such as engineering. 

Perhaps because unconscious bias – the inherent snap judgements we make of others based on their gender, skin colour, age and accents – can significantly hold women back. They can be far worse for black and ethnic women who may experience prejudice in multiple layers. Women are also some of the worst perpetrators against other women: Radio 4’s documentary shows even avowed feminists can be prejudiced against other women and Harvard’s global study that found 76% of men and women tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women as homemakers. Yet unconscious biases are the enemy of good leadership, stymying diversity, recruitment and an organisation’s culture.

Apart from the moral and ethical argument for equality, any businesses looking for incentives should note of the plentiful studies that show women’s greater participation in the workforce leads to greater business competitiveness and a greater contribution to the economy.

Other studies show at every single level of the corporate ladder, women are rated as better overall leaders than men by peers, bosses, direct reports and colleagues.

3. Include men as allies

We were helped in changing workplace culture by our male allies, pictured here at a joint event between the Women’s Network, LGBT Network and Disability Network.

It depends what your network is for, but if it is for driving workplace gender equality then men need to be part of that equation.

Gender inequity does not just hamper women – men suffer too; and men who act as allies to women whenever possible are also key to changing a workplace culture.

Take flexible working and shared paternity. They benefit men who have a right to be more involved in the care of their children. But many dads fear asking for more flexibility might damage their careers. That’s why tackling unconscious bias – in this case not just about what fatherhood looks like but what a committed employee looks like – can benefit men as much as women.

Having male allies also helps build the respect and understanding needed between male and female colleagues that can lead to a happier and more productive workplace with better access to sponsorship and female career advancement. It also helps illuminate the responsibility men have to facilitate this change: namely to assess their interactions with all colleagues, and whenever possible, serve as allies, helping those who are underrepresented in the organisation feel included.

So if we included men, why did we call ourselves a women’s network?  It did admittedly cause some confusion. But we decided that, at that time, the name was a true reflection of the network’s core purpose: to empower and support women in the workplace with men as allies.

4. Listen to your members and focus on what’s important

Strong groups have specific aims. What’s important for women in your organisation?

Take the case of Allison Steiner and her colleagues in earth sciences. They couldn’t find a specific network that offered the mentoring they needed in their field, so they set up the Earth Science Women’s Network, to help young female scientists start their careers. Their focus was on peer mentoring, workshops, and networking at professional conferences.

So what was important at the RNLI?

Was it hosting International Women’s Day events to motivate women to progress their careers and enable male peers to spot opportunities to sponsor them?

Was it chairing a Men As Allies debate in 2017 in partnership with LV, JP Morgan and Old Mutual Wealth or celebrating International National Women in Engineering 2016 and 2017?

While the events were inspiring and contributed towards gender inclusiveness in their own right our priority, according to a 2017 internal survey, turned out to be friendship, support and advocacy on policy and procedure. People wanted more informal events closer to where they worked at times that suited them.

But the big question was how. The RNLI has a vast army of volunteers and 4,000 paid staff, including part-time workers and seasonal workers around the UK and Ireland working in professions ranging from engineering to HR. Could we really be relevant to everyone and reach everyone? The answer was no – we’d only been going for 2 years and we were still finding our feet; some challenges were out of our control and we had to be sensible with plans for expansion. But we could make a start.

So we stripped back our programme of inspiring events and practical webinars on subjects such as LinkedIn skills and personal resilience and focussed on how we could deliver more informal events closer to staff around the UK and Ireland base on topics that were more relevant locally.

We focussed on one theme a year – such as Men As Allies – that could be anchor for a main event. We joined forces with other networks, such as the Disability and LGBT networks, to raise our profile and awareness of common issues.

And we created stronger links with senior sponsors to enable the network to advocate on issues affecting women in the organisation and identified certain women within the committee team who would be a first point of call for any staff member seeking advice.

Scrutinising the results and implementing change was no easy task given the time constraints of the passionate volunteer base, but one I really recommend for any network to stay relevant and useful.

5. Get organised and build your team  

two man and two woman standing on green grass field
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

There are five key lessons I took away from running the RNLI Women’s Network team.

One: Team players are key: you don’t just want people who have a useful skill or interest in the network, you want those who will show up.

Two: Remember your volunteers are there because they feel just as passionate as you do, so get to know what motivates them so you can delegate better.

Three: Foster team spirit and avoid the network becoming a chore. With a network spread over the UK and Ireland, physically meeting up was tough but worthwhile. A concise and lively meeting agenda can help. A tool we used at our socials was to post notes with a sentence saying what we needed help with, be it interview skills, public speaking or simply settling into the area.  Those who could help posted back their number or a tip. It was a lovely tool for bigger networking events too.

Four: Manage the workload. It might feel hard to do this when you’re managing a job and voluntarily  running the network, but if things become too much for everyone, focus on a few key things.

Five: Give people freedom to make their own decisions. We gave people specific roles, such as treasurer, communications lead or  community lead. Then we let them get on with it, only helping when needed.

6. Get something on the calendar and communicate the hell out of it

It’s helpful to have a routine, so members know what to expect and when. So if you’d like to meet monthly, aim for a second event on the calendar in that time, so people leave the first event with something to pop in their diaries.

To get the word out we set up an intranet page, hosted a dedicated Yammer page and invited people to receive an email newsletter. We also set up a Facebook page where we could reach people who worked out of season and those who didn’t have access to the intranet.

While all this looked great on paper it could become labour heavy for volunteers. In reality, the best method for communicating events was word of mouth, management emails, team meetings and politely harassing senior leaders to shout about it. In future, I’d concentrate on one or two key digital channels and use them well.

7.  Partner up and be open to different opinions and ideas

The more people you can connect with the better for you and the network.

If you want to represent all women, it’s important to include various groups of women and listen to all their different experiences of prejudice and bias. The same principle should be applied to your male allies to avoid an over representation of senior male management.

Building relationships with executive leaders and senior managers can help tackle issues. Our rapport with these people, particularly in underrepresented fields for women such as operations and engineering, was key to understanding issues in those areas and building awareness of the network.

Collaborating with chairs of networks outside your organisation can generate some fresh thinking. Our partnership with JP Morgan, LV and Old Mutual Wealth, not only enabled more inspiring joint events, but gave us food for thought on how we were organised.

Make use of the contacts your organisation already has. Janet Cooper, an RNLI Trustee and former vice-president of UN Women, gave her time to deliver a speech on gender equality at the opening of the network in 2016. She was also a strong internal advocate and sounding board for ideas, as was record breaking yachtswoman Dee Caffari, an RNLI Council member. All that experience was priceless and free.

8. Be yourself

It’s taken me years to be comfortable with my authentic self, but I’d like to think I’m finally there!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about how to be a successful leader, it’s to be yourself. Not only will people trust you more, you’ll gain more respect and be happier in your own skin too.

How can you do this if the thought of showing your true self fills you with dread? I found mind-mapping positive leadership traits I liked a useful tool along with developing my self-awareness. I asked for constructive feedback from peers and colleagues, some of whom became great mentors and friends.

Yes, I ate humble pie a few times. But with a degree of flexibility and acceptance, I’ve come out with leadership style I’m at ease with.

9. You’ll develop new skills and there will be personal highlights

I used to tremble like a dog off to the vets before any public speaking. Now I tame my nerves with a confidence trick. After the first few warbled sentences I trust I will get into my stride. Practice makes perfect.

In 2016 I project managed the first Women in Engineering Day at the RNLI with an incredible bunch of volunteers from the network. We invited fifty 11-13 year-old Dorset schoolgirls to the RNLI College in Poole to meet female RNLI engineers and learn more about the field in a bid to inspire them to consider engineering as a future career. Less than 10% of the engineering workforce are women, so this event had real purpose not only in helping to redress that social balance, but in raising awareness internally of the RNLI’s responsibility to carve a more inclusive workplace and be seen as a sector role model.

I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Not least because I strengthened some useful project management and organisation skills, but because it started a momentum for change in the engineering department. Most excitingly it also generated the desired shift in thinking among the students and inspired one student to do work experience with the RNLI’s Innovation team. It was one of those moments that leaves you buzzing for days and weeks afterwards.

10. You’ll feel a sense of purpose and go on a journey

In the evolution of the network many of us went on our own journey; from the managers who found value in the network to increase inclusivity in their teams to members of the network team who found new skills. I myself learnt to challenge my own subconscious suppositions, such as that not every woman (or man) wants a ‘career’; they may want a job to simply pay the bills, afford their lifestyle or enjoy using their skills. In doing so they have a right to be treated with respect and given opportunities to develop without being judged.

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I’ve been an advocate for gender equality since school when I campaigned for girls to play football along with the boys and at university where I helped campaign for rape refuge centres and ran women’s magazine Lippy. The last two years being on the team and then leading the group as chair has stoked the fire in my belly once more.

What are your experiences of women’s networks? Do you think they work? How could they be better?

Let me know by commenting back here and feel free to ask me about any of the points raised in this article.

#Womensnetworks #inclusion #diversity #menasallies #forwardthinking

Disclaimer: The facts outlined here about the RNLI Women’s Network were accurate at the time of writing in December 2017. The author has since left the RNLI and is now on maternity leave, so the network’s organisation and remit may have changed. The blog reflects the opinions of the author.