Today is International Women’s Day. At Frontline, we’re celebrating the achievements of all women in social work, and the huge impact they’ve had on improving the lives of the children and families they support. This week, we hear from five Frontline women – fellows and staff – about their journey to a senior position in social work.
Mary Jackson is the interim chief executive of Frontline, and prior to that was the chief programmes officer. As well as being a founding director of Morning Lane Associates, which supported children’s services teams with organisational change, she project-managed the influential Reclaiming Social Work model. In her earlier career, she worked in recruitment into the charitable sector, and then into social work.
We asked Mary for her thoughts on how to help women progress and develop in their social work careers.
We all need support, especially in areas where we are uncertain or lacking in confidence. And it is all the more powerful when it comes from someone with whom you identify, or who understands your experience. That motivates me to take every opportunity possible to understand where others are coming from – so I can help them to be their best. I have felt that responsibility even more acutely since being in a leadership role, and work hard to use my position of power to support women. For me, that means doing all I can (championing, listening, coaching, sharing or encouraging) to actively and vocally support wherever I can.
In my experience, it is often a lack of confidence in their ability that plays the biggest role in holding women back professionally. This is clearly not a new theme, but it is something we must overcome, to ensure women take the opportunities available to them in order to reach senior positions. As with most professions, the proportion of women in social work decreases in direct correlation to seniority – nobody can argue with the fact that we need gender balance in top-level roles.
My advice to women wanting to progress in their careers? Don’t be so concerned about getting it ‘wrong’ and ask others for help more. I can’t get through a single day of my life now without help from others, and I constantly make mistakes. There are plenty of exceptionally wise women in the world who walked the same steps before me – looking back, I would have made my life a lot easier if I’d asked more questions along the way. It took me a while to realise that getting it wrong, and seeking help, are the most valuable opportunities for connection and learning, so need to be leaned into, rather than avoided.
And always ask for the opinion, guidance and advice of as many people as possible. The more people in your corner, the better, and the more different voices and perspectives your champions bring, the better chance you have of learning and growing.