Women in leadership roles

By Daisy Narayanan,
Daisy Narayanan, Deputy Director, Built Environment Sustrans Scotland

We still live in a society where there is a definite gender power gap.

Construction of cycle path

Science, engineering, sports, politics and even transport have traditionally been male dominated environments, but things are changing.

Last year, Daisy Narayanan, Sustrans Scotland’s Deputy Director, Built Environment was seconded to ‘act up’ in the role of Scotland Director.  She shares her reflections on her time as Acting Director, and on women in leadership roles.  

"Last August, John Lauder, Sustrans Scotland National Director, was seconded to work with Xavier Brice, our Chief Executive, on the Sustrans five-year strategy.

During this time, I enjoyed new responsibilities in my capacity as Acting Director, gaining a deeper insight into the ‘bigger picture’ policy and political context, as well as the nuanced world of influencing. 

It has been a whirlwind of positive new experiences, at times pushing me out of my comfort zone.

I was asked towards the end of last year to write a blog about how it felt to be a ‘woman leader’. I struggled with the label – what does one mean by ‘woman leader’? Would the Sustrans Scotland National Director John lauder or our Chief Executive Xavier Brice, for example, describe themselves as ‘men leaders’?

Over the past few months, I have had interesting conversations with friends, colleagues, peers and mentors on leadership.

More specifically, conversations that have revolved around the role of ‘woman leaders’ in traditionally male-dominated sectors and whether we do enough to speak out about our own personal experiences and challenges. 

These conversations have led me to reflect on my own journey, which started as a young graduate architect in India in the late ‘90s, to leading urban design teams in London and Edinburgh. Every so often, I would come up against reminders that I was ‘the other’, a woman in a perceived man’s world.

I remember being 24, stood on a construction site on a hot summer afternoon in India, surrounded by over 200 men – clients, engineers, contractors and labourers. I was the only woman amidst the chaos of a building site, feeling very uncomfortable but trying hard not to show it. Putting on a tough front so I could ‘earn my place’ in that group. Discussing this incident with a friend, she instantly recognised that feeling: ‘it is like putting on your invisible war paint ready for battle’.

Different contexts – whether a construction site, engineering discussions, even client presentations – would highlight similar attitudes. We have arguably come a long way since then. However, working in the transport sector on infrastructure projects, such reminders are not so far beneath the surface.

Last week, a colleague described a conversation with a consultant, where she was told, ‘Don’t worry your little head about it’. How do you deal with such attitudes, especially when you are young and just starting on your career path?

We still live in a society where there is a definite gender power gap: Only 15% of senior police, 15% of High Court judges, 10% of newspaper editors and 8% of Directors of FTSE 250 firms are women. (Source: EHRC [2011] Sex and Power in Scotland).

Engender summarises the problem:

‘Social expectations and assumptions rooted in historical gender relations influence all walks of life, for women and for men, and compromise the equality that has been achieved on paper.’

Despite this, I believe we are making progress with diverse voices starting to break stereotypes across sectors – science, engineering, sports, politics – even transport! Within the transport sector we now see more visible role models for women across the board, including decision-makers in both national and local governments.

The conversations over the past few months have helped me see my own journey to Sustrans through a different prism. Brilliant, articulate and powerful women have inspired and paved the way for me. Women, who have shown me that you didn’t need to adopt a ‘tough’ persona to get your point across. And of course, ‘gender-blind’ men who have been supportive, inspiring and a key part of the journey.

Most importantly, through these conversations I have learnt that it is essential, for those of us who have the privilege to be in a position where our voices are heard, to be vocal about our own individual experiences.

All of us want happier, healthier lives for ourselves and our loved ones.

In my role with Sustrans, I have the privilege to influence the quality of our built environment through the work we do. I now realise that in my role, I have an opportunity to add to the voices speaking up for leadership and gender equality.

It has taken time and experience to recognise myself as a so-called ‘woman leader,’ but as a mother of two young children, a boy and a girl, I hope the need for such gender-based distinctions become unnecessary once they begin to forge their own paths in life."