Lessons in bravery for female leaders in a volatile world

As a 1970’s child, I lived through rampant inflation, power cuts, political infighting. Never has the UK felt more akin to being gripped again in a 21st-century version of the Winter of Discontent, writes Dawn Paine, co-founder at Liverpool-based creative agency Aurora.

Two years on from being trapped in our homes, the gloom seems relentless – strikes, spiralling costs and huge geopolitical and economic tension. And certainly, for women the cost of living crisis is making the workplace a tough environment. In fact, women take home £564 less than men each month.

The current economic pressures make switching jobs, launching a business, or asking for a promotion or pay rise even more challenging because of the accompanying risk of job insecurity, do we stick or twist?

But there are some steps and mindset reframing techniques that can help you find that bravery you need to navigate your way out of that career stasis. I recently chaired a panel event in Liverpool that explored female bravery in turbulent times, hosted by WACL, a collective of C-suite female leaders in advertising and communications on a mission to accelerate gender equality.

During the discussion, an array of inspiring female leaders who have carved out careers in male-dominated sectors, including Stephanie Hughes, Director of Marketing at Everton FC and Claire McColgan CBE, Director of Culture Liverpool, shared how they got ahead.

Along with some of their insights, here are tips and advice on how to step up in your career through these unerringly turbulent times:

Be true to your values and don’t let negative feedback grind you down

No one can avoid negative comments or knockbacks. It’s part of life. But you can ensure you don’t let criticism get to you too much or limit your outlook. “Don’t listen to minor negative comments, think about the bigger positive ones instead,” advises Claire McColgan.

Build confidence using positive affirmations

Stephanie Hughes’ affirmation is: “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going”. Meaning, continually learning from your experiences can help you make informed decisions that are true to you.

Set up an emergency fund

Some brilliant practical advice came courtesy of Susi Castle, Head of Marketing at Open Media. Creating an emergency fund is a vital step in boosting financial security. Build up a stash of money in a separate bank account reserved for unexpected life events, such as a job loss. Experts recommend saving between three and six months worth of living expenses – or as Susi rather delightfully titled it: the “Fxxx it Fund”.

Practice self-compassion

Speaking up to ask for a pay rise, better conditions or launching your own business carries a degree of risk – there is so much at stake. Susi shared more advice here: “Bravery is a privilege”. So before doing anything, acknowledge that feeling scared to take the leap is perfectly normal and don’t be hard on yourself for feeling reluctant. But remember, putting yourself forward doesn’t just benefit you. By advocating for other women, your actions can help ensure that future generations don’t have to encounter similarly challenging moments.

Rehearse asking for a pay rise

Asking for more pay, a promotion or improved workplace conditions takes guts. If you haven’t prepared how you will present your case to your boss then you’re likely to undersell yourself. Practice what you are going to say to build your confidence and ensure you come away from your meeting with a positive response.

Build resilience by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations

Think of bravery as riding a bike. The more you do on a daily basis that is out of your comfort zone, the more comfortable it will become. And eventually, you even get to a place which I refer to as “uncomfortable excitement”.

WACL President, Rania Robinson, added that physiologically, we have the same chemical reaction to stress and excitement. So let’s adjust our mindset- once you have recognised the root cause of your stress, focus on what you can control and what positive results can come from the situation.

What was clear from our session was that defining bravery is a complex, multi-faceted thing – and there is no single definition. In its simplest sense, bravery can be just the sense of feeling absolutely alive – living every day to the fullest, understanding your core values and remaining true to them; embracing this adventure of a lifetime while facing your mistakes and growing from them.

Truthfully, at some point in our lives, we might have felt different to others which could lead to feeling uncomfortable and seeking acceptance. Ultimately, it’s part of human nature to seek a sense of belonging and look for approval in others. However, we need to learn to trust our instincts. Ask yourself “am I going to let someone else take this opportunity?”.

This topic is a deeply personal and meaningful one for me – throughout my career, I have often been seen as a brave and bold leader. Truthfully, there were often moments of deep confidence crises and feelings of failure that resided just beneath the surface.

But for me, it’s always about digging deep, knowing – “I will get through this” and having the drive and tenacity to dig your way out. Speaking as a later-in-life female entrepreneur, myself and my epic co-partner Valerie Bounds, spend every day “jumping off cliffs and building our wings on the way down” to quote Kurt Vonnegut – as we build our business Aurora.

Certainly, being a proudly Liverpudlian-headquartered global agency means we have that grit and disruption in our DNA underpinned with that “never give up” ethos.

But ultimately as the world keeps reminding us – enjoy the moment, stay humble and know that in life, we can plan with the best of them – but that often our biggest breaks will always have that sparkle of a little luck. And have fun with it, you never know the moment. As Eleanor Roosevelt beautifully reminds us: “Well-behaved women rarely make history”. We couldn’t agree more, Eleanor.

This article was originally published in Prolific North on 12th Jan 2023

About the author

Dawn Paine
Dawn Paine
CEO & Co-Founder

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