Choosing to challenge on International Women’s Day 2021

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, Lisa Dowd-Patel talks about how she has chosen to challenge gender stereotypes throughout her career and how she’s working to improve gender balance as a part of RSA Balance.

Take a moment and in your mind picture a CEO, an Astronaut or a Doctor.

Did you think of a man or a woman? Many of us believe that we are not biased against people who are different to us, that we are all inclusive. However, there are many gender stereotypes. Some may seem perfectly innocent. For example, men are better drivers or women are more motherly. They may seem like harmless assumptions, but subconsciously they reinforce gender inequalities between men and women. Women can be excellent drivers the same as men can be very nurturing.

I was raised by a single mother in Liverpool and was the first person in my family to go to university. I moved to London in 2005 and started working on a graduate programme at an engineering company. Looking back now it was a very masculine environment, but it was my first professional job. I didn’t know any different and I was just delighted to have moved to the capital. I was very fortunate that I had a supportive manager. I was the first finance graduate they had employed, as they had only ever taken on engineering graduates before me, and he was determined to make his protégé a success.

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Me at my desk in my first job.

Choosing to challenge

As a management accountant I was responsible for the monthly reporting and telling the operations director that he was overspending. I remember one meeting with our American shareholders, when I walked into the room one of them said he would like a coffee with 2 sugars. My colleague quickly clarified that I wasn’t the tea lady and the meeting reconvened. Instead of taking it personally I decided to see the funny side, but more importantly I made the decision to work hard and prove my seat at the table. I chose to challenge his stereotype of me.

After that I moved on to work at an investment bank – another male-dominated industry. I worked for the only female Managing Director in technology and data at the time. She was a positive and inspiring role model for me and so many others. She was a mother, a high-flying MD and was always surprised when people questioned why she was both, and not just one or the other. When anyone ever asked her how she managed it her response was always ‘why wouldn’t I?’.

Fast forward 15 years and gender bias is not as blatant; however, it does still exist. From comments said in jest that mother’s leaving work early for childcare are part timers, to those off on maternity leave are taking a holiday or are not serious about their career. For me at least, I do not to take people’s stereotypes personally. Everyone has a different background and their prior experience leads them to their opinions and beliefs, that is what makes us all unique. Most of the time people do not intentionally set out to upset others. We do however all have a responsibility to speak up when something doesn’t sit right with us.

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I hope that when my daughters come to working age that gender balance is no longer a debate.

I will pledge to take the driving seat

Only when we continue the conversation and call others out do we raise awareness and educate each other. Choose to challenge. If you’re in a meeting and someone says something that you are not comfortable with, say it. If someone’s voice is not being heard when they share good ideas, say it. When you are hiring, take a chance on someone different to yourself. We all make choices every day based on the information we are presented with, but it is up to each one of us to make the right choice.

I am now a mother of two daughters, and I really do hope that when they come to working age gender balance will no longer be a debate. The Easter half term is coming up and my daughter chose the cricket club over ballet, much to my husband’s delight. We gave her the choice and that is what she chose, she didn’t even consider that she shouldn’t be playing cricket. However, I still need to convince my husband that I can drive as well as he can. Instead of letting him drive when we are together, I will pledge today to take the driving seat regardless of the faces he pulls or the remarks he makes. Nobody said change is easy.

That goes for work also. Today we have re-launched RSA Balance, an employee resource group which aims to empower women to achieve their personal and professional goals, tackle prejudice and stereotyping and help RSA become a leader known for supporting gender balance in our market.