A template for women at work

workingmums.co.uk speaks to a woman who took Diana Parkes’ book on understanding the things that hold women back at work and daring to overcome them and used it as a template for a women’s book club focused on practical action.


Writers of books on women’s career progression might get the odd letter of appreciation and affect individual change, but Diana Parkes’ book, ‘Understand, Dare, Thrive: How to have your best career, from today’, has been taken up by a whole group of women in one company and used as the basis for a series of practical sessions on negotiating the sometimes tricky waters of office workplace culture.

It all started when Diana met Joanne Davies* at an event about male allies. The two women talked and Joanne joined Diana’s mailing list. Last year, Joanne read about Diana’s book, ordered a few copies and decided to introduce it to the women’s group she co-chaired. She was keen to develop a practical approach to the issues women were facing at work.

She set to work enabling Diana’s book to be used as the basis for discussion for a series of five monthly reading group sessions. She was keen to make it as easy and accessible as possible by chunking it up into one or two practical-focused chapters for each session and using them as the basis for a conversation. High-level summary notes from the chapters were sent out in advance of each meeting. All the members were given a copy of the book too. Each session was run twice in one day to ensure as many women as possible could attend, given the group is international and many are in different time zones.

Around 40 people signed up, mainly women and a few men joined too. Most people attended every month and some even attended both sessions on a particular topic because the conversation varied according to who was taking part. The five areas covered were: confidence and resilience; knowing your strengths; strategic impact and self promotion; stakeholder management and being heard; and networking and mentoring.

A forum for women to share their experiences

The first session took place in January. Everyone was sent Joanne’s notes in advance about the key points for discussion and she summarised the conversation and key takeaways at the end. For Joanne personally it was very impactful, particularly given that her industry is very male-dominated. She got a lot of positive feedback. “It was a forum for women to talk about their own experiences and share what they did. People would say this is what happened to me and this is what I did. It was a chance to understand that we are not always alone in our experiences,” says Joanne.

Subjects covered included what to do if your boss doesn’t listen to you, how to address people talking over you or being made to feel subordinate. Joanne said one of the key takeaways for her from all the sessions was to nurture her network. The sessions also created a trusted community which people could rely on going forwards for advice, as well as having Diana’s book to refer to.

Diana attended the last session and gave a presentation about the book, her ongoing work for her organisation the Women’s Sat Nav to Success and her own experiences, followed by a Q & A. She says the questions were very varied. There was discussion about how to deal with managers who tend to value only a certain type of experience and competency. She says she hears regularly from people who say their sector is unique in requiring a specific type of background. “I see this kind of narrow thinking again and again and it keeps a whole community of people out of senior leadership,” she says. “There’s a real lack of creativity and a laziness from people who say it has always been like this. It is what I would call a convenient resistance to change.”

She says the event was both uplifting, seeing women come together to support each other, and depressing in that women are still struggling with the same things they have been battling for decades at work, even if there are now more women in management. Her aim with the book has always been to make it easier for women to share their experiences and what they have learned, both with each other and down the generations.

Daring to act

Joanne describes the sessions as one of the highlights of her year and says the environment created in the network is very inclusive. The group held a reunion meeting in September and Joanne went over her notes. “It’s like a Bible for women,” she said. Many of the women are keeping in touch with each other.

Diana says: “It’s about creating a sense of connection between women that they can practise with each other until the process becomes easier. Boys grow up expecting to have  to ask for things in a way that girls don’t.  Once you know what the process of asking is and can practise it with others you don’t have to think about it.”

Her book, as its title suggests, is about both understanding what is holding women back and daring to take action to overcome it. In that way, although anchored in academic studies, it is very practically oriented, being based on a distillation of interviews with 45 female leaders,  and so the book club is a perfect way to take the solutions offered forward through creating a supportive network.

In the book, she says taking action can become “a virtuous cycle taking you onward and upward”. “You will have greater self-belief and therefore greater confidence because you will have evidence of what you can do and what it will bring,” she writes. “This will raise your sense of self-worth and increase your resilience to fuel momentum towards what you really want and deserve.”

*Not her real name.  

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