Ruth Gilbert, CEO of the Career Colleges Trust

On the 25 May, I’ll be speaking at the Women’s Leadership Network conference in London. I am keen to share my experiences with other senior women leaders and indeed, aspiring leaders – to help galvanise some of the remarkable female talent we have in our sector.

We are living in changing times. Women’s representation in the workforce has risen to 46% and work is being done to encourage women into traditionally male industries. The Women in Technology project for example is a two way leadership programme that focuses on encouraging women leaders to engage with the technology industry, helping to address major skills gaps.

However, with traditionally lower salaries and low representation at board level, we are not where we should be. The reasons for this are vast but I am keen to look at what we can do to nurture and develop women across all industry sectors to become leaders of the future.

Throughout my career I have always looked for new opportunities. And when I found these, I was (and still am) willing to take risks, exposing myself and indeed others to new situations. This is not always easy, we don’t all feel comfortable ‘putting ourselves out there’, but courage and self-belief is key to success.

Responding positively to feedback, good or bad, is also important and asking for advice should never be viewed as a weakness. Previous managers have become my mentors and I have always appreciated the wealth of experience to draw on. They have often commented that their reason for engaging fully and positively with me was down to my drive to succeed, and, quite frankly, the fact I had the gall to ask! It really is true that if you don’t ask, you don’t get – but ensuring you choose the right time and manner is vital. 

I have always aimed to be in a place that gives me more control and the ability to make a difference. This has meant I’ve sought out leadership that drives change, pace of actions and ultimately outcomes.

But such ambition has come at a cost. As a young woman I had to make choices and this meant not socialising with my peers as much as I would have liked. Long hours and work functions were my focus and I actively sought additional projects to try and make a difference at work in order to improve both business and personal outcomes.

And there have been the knockbacks and challenging attitudes. I faced people telling me that I lacked experience to lead and that it was ‘not my place’ to be trying to bring about change. But as we all know, you need experience to get experience.

I do feel that some of today’s young leaders think they have all the answers. The truth is that they don’t. Importantly they must seek help and guidance, as well as being open to consulting with both senior and junior members within a team. Recognising when swift decisions are required is key and having the strength and confidence to make these decisions.

Throughout my career I have always surrounded myself with mentors – and continue to do so. I also act as a mentor to others, in the knowledge that I am supporting aspiring talent. I often come across very capable young leaders who feel they need to demonstrate their independence by showing that they are coping on their own. Well they don’t’ and actually shouldn’t!

When it comes to the gender divide and trying to tackle this across various sectors, there is no silver bullet. Research tells us that parents are the biggest influencers on a child’s career path – acting as decision makers as well as role models.

Breaking gender myths early on regarding there being certain jobs for boys and girls is crucial. Research clearly shows that exposure to positive role models from the age of 7 is needed to get away from the ingrained gender stereotypes. For example, are football and Lego really only for boys?

Many schools continue to reinforce these outdated myths, without realising the knock on effect they are having down the line. By perpetuating gender stereotypes at such a young age, we risk putting barriers up between young women and the many careers available across, for example, the science, technology and healthcare sectors.

We are all responsible when it comes to promoting gender equality and I for one am keen to see women being represented fairly in business. However, it requires commitment and dedication from our aspiring women leaders, and the confidence to succeed.

Ruth Gilbert, CEO of the Career Colleges Trust

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