Review: The Guardian’s ‘Forward Women’ Conference

IMG_0016A couple of weeks ago on 18th November, I attended The Guardian’s Forward Women afternoon. The conference was for 18 to 21 year old girls and focussed on women in leadership. My expectations were high, not least because it was an event run by one of the country’s leading newspapers, but the line-up of speakers were very established in their fields. As you’ll find out whilst reading this post, expectations were not met, so I’m going to use this post as a review, as I had plenty of critique following the day!

Upon arrival, you could immediately tell the set-up was big – publicity everywhere, taking over a large part of the Kings Place venue. We were all given goody bags filled with ‘typically’ girly things like flowery bubble bath, flavoured popcorn, chocolate and travel mugs. We were soon herded into a professionally staged auditorium, large enough to hold the 200 or so girls at the event.

The afternoon was opened by Harriet Minter, the Editor of Women in leadership at The Guardian, who introduced the first (and by far the best) speaker of the afternoon, Alison Rose. Alison is the CEO of commercial and private banking at RBS. Her speech was captivating and informative, truly demonstrating her success and achievement as a woman in a very male-dominated field. What I liked about her, was she seemed very level-headed, honest but also had a genuine passion for her job. She rounded off her speech with 4 tips, perfectly encapsulating her message:

  1. Build a good team around you. Diversity achieves results and investing in a team will make you successful. Through team work you will learn and develop yourself.
  2. No career takes straight lines. Take risks which test and challenge you. Dealing with disappointments is more powerful than how you deal with successes. Make sure you invest in yourself.
  3. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. You may get frustrated achieving a goal as different things will happen to what was expected. But keep perspective, pace and think in the long term. Slow and steady now may mean you go faster later.
  4. Most importantly – be yourself! It is easy to think you have to behave in a particular way to be successful when you start a career, or you need to be like person x because they are good at what they do. If you can’t be yourself doing the job, it is too big of a price to pay. Stick to that. You can borrow things from others then do it your way, but don’t copy another person as you’ll only be a second class copy. Don’t compromise, be yourself, find something you enjoy and go for it!

IMG_0011Alison was followed by Samantha Shannon, a young author of only 23 who described her journey to become a published author. She also spoke about the inspirations behind her stories and what it takes to write a great one. I did find her speech interesting in a personal, rather than professional sense, as I am a huge book worm! It was thought-provoking to learn what small thing can trigger an author to write a 400 page novel, just from the depths of their imagination. Near the end of her speech she also talked about not being afraid to voice your opinion, despite a gender equality survey carried out by YouGov in 24 countries, stating 15% of WOMEN(!) think “It is unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public”. Very interesting and rather shocking too. I should also give her credit for the fact she had a fear of public speaking; yet stood up to speak to 200 very attentive girls. Bravo!

IMG_0012The next part of the afternoon involved breakout sessions. Before the event we chose between one of three workshops: building confidence through body awareness; mastering social media and building your personal brand; and the power of profile. Each breakout had further description but I couldn’t help but notice that all workshops were pretty much exactly the same thing…! I chose the power of profile, led by Vanessa Vallely, Managing Director of WeAreTheCity. She spoke about her background and route to banking and finance. I have to admire her for the grit, determination and tenacity she exhibited to break into the financial sector – an inspirational story for anyone who thinks their background could be a hinderance. The bulk of the session consisted of networking tips and select things you usually learn in sixth form or first year of University. The session also contained information on building an online profile and the importance of LinkedIn and Twitter… which I didn’t quite know what to make of. Something very interesting I instantly picked up on is she stated on one of her slides not to write your opinions on Twitter. I understand she probably meant “don’t troll” or something along those lines, but I couldn’t quite help but think of the “15% of women think having an opinion is unattractive” statistic. It is well and good coming across ‘perfect’ to employers which is what she seemed to suggest was the point of Twitter; but I would rather not lose my personality and sense of identity or character….

The second part of the afternoon continued with another keynote speech from Billie JD Porter, an up-and-coming presenter. As a presenter I think she is great, as I especially enjoyed her ‘Secrets of China’ programme. But her public speaking was surprisingly rather terrible. Cursing profusely, looking like she really didn’t want to be there and spending most of the speech reading mean tweets she had received. Her message summed up: I’m bored and it is rubbish being a woman in the media, but I don’t care because I can be rude to people who say things I don’t like. Yes as dull as that. Shame really as I was expecting good things.

The panel debate titled ‘What I wish I’d known when I was starting out in my career…’ was good with a selection of interesting and slightly varied panellists; Lucy Emptage, trader at RBS, Carrie Osman, entrepreneur, Mair Rowlands, politician, and Naomi Shimada, model. It wasn’t much of a debate, more of a discussion, but compelling nonetheless with a lot of good points raised. There was a girl power vibe which was captivating, despite the conversation being more about what they do now, rather than what they wish they had known before starting their career. However, they had a great few minutes discussing what mistakes they had made when they first got onto the career ladder and what the outcome was; this was something everyone could reflect on.

The afternoon finished with a Q&A from Lily Pebbles, a beauty blogger and keynote speeches from Gemma Cairney, Radio 1 DJ and Perri Shakes-Drayton, Olympic Athlete. I enjoyed these speeches on more of a personal note, as I love music and I used to be a swimmer/athlete at a high level as a teenager. Both Gemma and Perri were extremely vibrant and energetic speakers, so fantastic to listen to.
A drinks reception concluded the afternoon, where I had a chance to meet and network with other girls at the event.

I must admit, the event did not hit my expectations or even come close for that matter! The main issue was that I believe it was pitched to the wrong age group. Even though I am at the top end of the bracket, I felt it was much more appropriate for 16-19 year olds. i.e. sixth form/ early years of University. Anyone who has been through Uni will agree that each year you learn and mature by huge amounts, especially with networking, careers and leadership. There were most certainly times where I felt I potentially could have been on that stage speaking about young leadership, rather than sitting in the audience. For that reason it is possibly why I found large portions of the afternoon rather patronising.

In addition, there was never a moment where we were encouraged to step outside of our comfort zones or break the female mould. The whole afternoon in fact was very targeted to stereotypical female roles within careers – largely media related (although the finance/banking was refreshing at times). As a scientist I felt as if there was absolutely nothing I could relate to and there were huge gaps in careers that could have easily been, but weren’t, covred: no engineers/scientists/technology/law/services etc.

IMG_0001-001Finally, I was highly disappointed by the workshops: solely focussing on image. What about public speaking skills? other communication skills? leadership skills? interview skills? team management skills? The list is endless. These weren’t covered or even an option, which is a great shame, as I perceive the above to be *essential* skills for career progression, personal development and leadership.

The Guardian’s Forward Women conference as a whole had the potential to be brilliant, but fell a bit flat for me. I’m sure some of the younger girls interested in media would have found it extremely insightful; however, the appeal had a limited reach. This was the first time the Guardian had put on an event like this, so I hope next time they will aim to incorporate other skills into their workshops, appeal to the older end of the age bracket and aim for even more diversity in their speakers’ occupations.

If you are interested in what the conference offered, the speakers, programme and background, you can find out more information on their website:

– Lucinda



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