Young Women and Leadership

Young Scottish women and Beyoncé inspire Louise Macdonald, Young Scot's Chief Executive in this month's leadership blog...

Louise MacDonaldI had the true privilege of being a speaker at the first “Inspiring Young Women” event in the Scottish Parliament last month. Established by the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick MSP, the aim was to inspire young women aged 14-16 from across Scotland and offer a space to discuss issues such as body image, confidence, sexism and leadership with female leaders.

It was such a powerful event in so many ways, with young women from every part of Scotland – the vast majority of whom had not had the opportunity to take part in anything like it before. The atmosphere was electric, the discussions wide-ranging and the energy from all those fabulous young women lit up the whole Parliament building.

It had a powerful impact on me too – as someone who spends every day working to make Scotland a better place for young people to grow up, and as a female leader.

I’m one of those incredibly fortunate women, whose mothers fought for the rights we now enjoy. I spent a large part of my early career thinking “it’s all sorted” and that any incidents of gender inequality I did encounter were just an anomaly – the result of those stuck in the old ways. They never stopped me – because I never ever thought they could.

But then the #everydaysexism campaign appeared…and I was horrified. Stunned at the extent of the sexism young women were facing on a daily basis. Stunned that this was the legacy of women like me. How did we allow this to happen on our watch? It led me to re-evaluate my role as a female leader, and since then I’ve committed to doing more, saying more and being more visible – especially to young women.

I met young women in Parliament that day who had never, ever questioned the sexism they encounter on a daily basis. They told me “I just thought that’s how it was.” I met girls who would never take part in sport or physical activity because they were too embarrassed about their body. But I also spoke to girls who were getting every single male they knew – young and older – to sign up for #HeforShe and others who were challenging ideas about what girls could and could not do in their own communities.

It made me reflect a lot on who I was as a teen, and what I know now – as a woman who has the privilege to lead an amazing team in an incredible organisation that has purpose, vision and creativity. Looking back, reflecting on the long-shadow of my upbringing, I realised three things:

  1. I wish I hadn’t been allowed to be one of those girls who disengaged with sport because I was too embarrassed. So many of the young women I meet today who are confident in themselves, excited about their future and willing to take on challenges have one thing in common – they take part in sport. It offers something special for girls.
  2. I’m hugely grateful to my parents, who never limited me – not for one second. In fact the opposite – my Dad, in particular, was always exhorting me to try harder and believe in myself.
  3. That we have to support boys as well as girls to be feminists. This isn’t just about building brilliant young women – it’s about building brilliant young men too. I know lots of them as well – who are not sexist, who believe in equality and who live it every day. Let’s shout loud and celebrate them too.

In the current debate about 50:50 and the continued fight to shatter the glass ceiling, other female leaders out there in the sector and beyond will be reflecting on their journeys too I’m sure. But having the lens of young women through which to look at this issue is a powerful one – it is a mirror which makes you ask searching questions.

But back to the Scottish Parliament event and the group of young women I was talking to. We reckoned we needed a strong motto: something to remind us to keep going, unapologetically fierce and fabulous. Of course, it had to be Beyonce – Queen Bey herself – who reminded us: “I’m not bossy…I’m the boss…”

Wise words indeed sister…