Solace Blog

International Women's Day: personal reflections

A blog by Hannah Bartram, Chief Operating Officer, ADEPT 

”Women don't need to find a voice: they have a voice. They need to feel empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen.”

Meghan Markle said this recently in a public Q&A session. Of all the current public conversations about women’s voices, this one chimed most with me. Women leaders have established their voice and the power to use it, the question now is how well do others listen?

I’m in a really fortunate position, my role as Chief Operating Officer in the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) is one of soft leadership. I was brought in to help take the Association forward, to continue its transformation into a relevant organisation, lean and influential.

Many people have noted that I work in an intrinsically male dominated arena, across sectors that have been traditionally and culturally less open to women in the past. People expect me to say that this is tough, that I encounter many barriers and attitudes that infuriate me and prevent me from getting on with the job, but I have to be truthful, I don’t.

Yes, there is a significant gender imbalance in the organisation and yes, that is sometimes frustrating, but what I don’t encounter is an unwillingness to address it. Of course, it is something that should have been tackled before, but I’m pushing against an open door and I think that is a testament to the work that has been done on equality within the public sector over many, many years.

That the men I work with are very aware that they need to cultivate diverse workplaces with leaders to match is to be celebrated, particularly on International Women’s Day. After all, we all know that things really develop when men, as well as women, support change.

The ADEPT 50:50 Leaders Network has been set up specifically to enable the next generation of female leaders. ADEPT working groups are reviewing how they contribute to the continuing professional development of all senior officers, supporting diversity in a landscape of decreasing training budgets.

In the two years since I started, I have reviewed the Association’s entire operations. We have developed a new Corporate Partners programme, broadened our networks, reviewed policy and reshaped our commercial and stakeholder strategies. All this has been achieved collaboratively.

Working as part of a mostly male leadership team, where all are Place Directors and leaders in their own right might be expected to be combative. It’s not.

Unquestionably, the fact that the team have exceptionally demanding day jobs with significant time pressures focuses minds, but if there is a prevalent leadership style, it is one of trust. Effective decision-making is based on listening to others, sharing opinion and reviewing the evidence to reach a clear agreement. 

These qualities are widely perceived as feminine, but I see them used time and again throughout the Association and the wider public sector. The organisation would not be able to move forward without them.

Whether this is evidence of the ‘feminisation’ of the workplace or actually a case of adopting the best working strategies, is one for academics and tabloid columnists. I see it as another reason to cheer.

I’m not trying to say that everything has been resolved or that we live in a time of gender parity, when that’s clearly not true. We are still dealing with equal pay, harassment and power imbalance and a significant cultural backlash to the achievements of women. But as Harriet Harmon said recently, I am working with ‘the sons of the women’s movement’ and it shows.


On International Women’s Day, as well as thinking of the work that is still to be done, let’s also celebrate our successes.