Life lessons: how to build a fairer workplace

As told to Frances Hedges
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sophie Newton

From Harper's BAZAAR

I’m the COO of the digital-marketing agency Brainlabs, where I oversee all agency client services, technology development and innovation, which is really exciting in such a fast-paced industry.

In our early days, it was easy to excuse small discrepancies in pay distribution, but that wasn’t a pattern we wanted to persist. Comprehensively addressing gender imbalances was a challenge, but we decided to pave the way and tackle our pay gap from the root by eliminating unconscious biases in our culture and processes through continuous self-assessment. Here are my five golden rules for being a courageous leader and instigating change.

1. Identify your non-negotiables.

It is vital to work out what your core values are, both in your career and in your personal life. There’s no one-size-fits-all here – everyone has different requirements when it comes to salary expectations or maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Figuring out what’s most important to you will give you a powerful voice, a sense of independence and the confidence to be vocal about what you want. Once you’ve identified your principles, be uncompromising in adhering to them. This was a fundamental discovery for me after being exposed to a workplace culture that bred toxicity. I knew I wouldn’t thrive in this type of cut-throat environment, but it did help me to develop my personal moral code. As a leader, I continue to hold myself accountable to these values today.

2. Overcome the threat of stereotyping.

When I was younger, I always felt on the periphery of the circles I operated in: I felt out of place in the maths world because I liked fashion, but I was never truly accepted into the world of fashion due to my love of maths. We live in a culture that dictates who men and women should or shouldn’t be. It is drummed into young girls that science is for boys, which forces us to underperform. Today, I choose not to allow others to push me into little boxes; to reduce me solely to a sum of my parts or a lazy stereotype. I fully believe that the status quo can change, if we challenge it. Any woman can forge her own path as a leader, while resisting the unconscious biases permeating through our society. We don’t have to force ourselves to be stereotypically ‘masculine’ to be successful. It’s OK to break the mould and show people the real you, and it’s OK to be unashamedly ambitious. Society’s attitudes are malleable if we fight hard enough to change them.

3. Dedicate time to learning.

Stay curious. Carve out time and mental space for learning outside of work. In today’s society, there have never been more ways to readily access information (my favourites are podcasts, articles and documentaries from as diverse a background as possible). Knowledge is the most powerful tool any leader of change can leverage, so be a sponge and absorb it all. I always ensure I’m gathering information from a wide range of news outlets: there’s no use in absorbing all knowledge from a single source, because you then will only be exposed to the same perspectives. There are various topics that I like to delve into: from mathematics breakthroughs to intersectional feminism, AI development, global-wellbeing initiatives and political campaigning. Ultimately, taking a break from work to engage your mind in critical thought elsewhere will allow you to focus better and ultimately work smarter.

4. Show vulnerability to build trust.

You don’t need to be an emotionless rock to be a good leader. Being open and approachable is not incompatible with being level-headed. In fact, good leaders have a strong capacity for empathy. Of course, doubts and insecurities alone won’t get the job done, but no one is superhuman. I use my voice to encourage open conversations about mental health in the workplace, speaking honestly about my own experiences. By fostering an environment of trust, it becomes easier to address issues directly without causing unnecessary tension. Above all, I remind myself constantly that every decision I make will have a butterfly effect across the business. There’s a quote that really resonated with me that touches on this: “The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.”

5. Build a strong support network.

I publicly challenged the gender pay gap and enacted change at my company to tackle the unfair discrepancy between men and women’s salaries. As a result (surprise, surprise!), I immediately received an onslaught of online abuse and trolling. Fighting injustice is a really difficult thing to do as an individual, but we can never underestimate its impact on a larger scale. I believe it’s the duty of those with power, and a platform to make their voices heard, to do so, even though it is intimidating and likely to create resistance. That’s why it’s absolutely essential to find your allies and surround yourself with supportive people. Sometimes, for the sake of self-preservation, we need to stop ourselves from reading (and rereading) hurtful comments, switch off our phones, and take some time out to spend with those that care about us. People aren’t celebrated enough for speaking out, so when you see somebody demonstrating the bravery to do so, raise them up. They’ll pave the way for others.

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