According to the World Economic Forum, it will take over 200 years to close the global gender pay gap. Globally, women are paid only 63% of what their male counterparts earn, but as females remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate sphere, is significant change within our lifetime possible?
Less than 29% of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women. Worldwide, only 10 women are serving as Head of Government and only 11 women are serving as Head of State. In the UK, fewer than one in five small to medium-sized enterprises are led by women. The facts speak for themselves: women in leadership roles are almost as rare as unicorns. But in a fast-paced world in which the 24-hour news cycle reports endlessly on disastrous events across the globe, it’s easy to become desensitised to the stark reality of the gender gap problem.
However, for Sophie Tew, President of the Leeds University Women in Leadership Society (WILS), empowering women to become catalysts for social change is her number one priority. The mission of the society is to “empower students to reach their full potential irrespective of gender, ethnicity, social status or religion,” with a view to creating a more diverse and inclusive wider world and workforce. Sophie believes that the core value of the society is inclusivity: “we can’t reach gender equality without including men, the society is not just for self-identifying women, but in fact for all people who want to champion female leadership, from any background.”
The society doesn’t just pay lip-service to this promise of inclusivity and equality: membership to the society is free and WILS only partner and collaborate with firms that reflect their shared values. Often, this means extensive research into the gender board reports of potential sponsors and the initiatives that speakers have supported to enact social change and promote diversity. Declining sponsorships or speakers from certain firms who don’t meet these criteria is only one of the many ways in which the society fights back against exclusivity. Sophie explains that the society “has four different sectors and is trying to reach out to students in finance, business, arts and humanities as well as STEM” and is committed to creating a “conversation and dialogue which calls out the problems we are facing” as a society.
Having been founded in 2017, the society has been growing exponentially ever since and now has over 1000 members but is still looking to expand further: “we are privileged enough to attend a great university and have opportunities that some people don’t have access to so we want to use this privilege to support others and gain support ourselves. We want to support and encourage more students to have the confidence to own their skills and talent and go into the workforce to become a leader in that industry.”
Are such ambitious goals really achievable? So far, WILS has hosted an incredible list of events and campaigns to get the ball rolling. Numerous high-profile speakers have given motivational speeches and advice based on their personal experiences in the workforce; Labour Party MP for Leeds West, Rachel Reeves, discussed the barriers facing women in politics; Funmi Abari, Student Doctor and founder of the Empower Us Project spoke about the challenges of maintaining work-life balance as a young professional and mum-of-two; Richard McCann, motivational speaker and Sunday Times No. 1 bestselling author, explained his tremendous effort to navigate life through trauma after his mother was murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper when he was just five years old.
In addition to a whole host of speakers from diverse and representative backgrounds, WILS has also launched the #FirstTo online campaign to highlight the stories of men and women who have been the first in their family to do something, such as attend university or move away from their home: “considering the university has quite a large population of middle class students whose parents have attended university before, we thought that it was necessary to raise awareness of the challenges First generation students face and to celebrate the First gen!”
Sophie’s passion and commitment to social mobility has become a key driver for change and a core value behind the ethos of Women in Leadership Society; Sophie herself is an Associate for upReach, a UK charity which helps disadvantaged students to realise their potential. Not only does the charity support those from underprivileged backgrounds, the initiative also champions students from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. Successful candidates for the Associate position receive free careers support, as well as mentoring to help improve their employability skills. As part of this initiative, Sophie attended the upReach Student Social Mobility Awards ceremony held at the House of Lords in December 2018, enabling her to connect with people with similar stories to hers: “you need to be able to see people who look like you and talk like you to then be able to envision yourself in their position and have that confidence that you don’t have to be a white man who speaks in RP to be successful.”
This key message inspires the WILS mentoring scheme, where third year students are paired with freshers in order to offer them support and advice and bridge the confidence gap which often holds people back. Having the confidence to strive for success can be made easier by hearing from those who have actually achieved their goals, regardless of their initial circumstances and the mentoring scheme combined with key speakers and events aim to show that “there is no one model of a woman and what women in leadership look like…you can be the definition of what it is, you and your traits and your characteristics.”
Ultimately, to enact real social change, we all need to fight for equality of opportunity and inclusivity. Women in Leadership Society is a small but fiercely significant part of this movement to ensure that “fairness of opportunity doesn’t just start at university.”
If you want to be part of the change that we need to see, WILS are launching their gender pay gap coffee campaign in the Union this Friday: female customers pay less for their coffee proportional to the University of Leeds reported pay gap of 22.5%. Sophie encourages everyone to get involved and “grab a coffee on International Women’s Day to engage in conversation about supporting more women from all backgrounds to become leaders!”