Get to know Caroline Pankhurst – Coach and Consultant

What’s been a defining moment for you as a woman in your career? 

The most defining moment for me was a play I saw at the National Theatre by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It was the first new play to be staged on the Olivier Theatre stage written by a woman. It was 2008! A love story set against the backdrop of the suffragette story. There I found a new model of leadership. I found courage and feminism. Purpose and meaning.  

There was so much that unfolded personally and professionally from that play – both intellectually and philosophically. With my interest in psychology and some life experiences, which happened on the basis of my being a woman, I unearthed the magical ingredients which led me to develop the Be Braver mindset, found a company, find Sharon and join Shape Talent. 

I used to work in the creative industries and my Creative Director Nick Moore always used to say how important it was that the creative teams took time to immerse themselves in the arts. I always thought it sounded like an excuse to have an afternoon off. But given how transformative the trip to the theatre turned out to be for me, I have to confess he was right. And given we all need to be creative in solving problems – it applies to us all. 

What’s the best example of gender equity leadership you’ve seen in action?  

Is it cheating if I say Sharon Peake and Shape Talent? Not just for building and creating a purpose-driven organisation and model; but for shaping gender equity and talent from the very core and spreading it far and wide. What sets Sharon and the business apart isn’t just their commitment to a noble cause; it’s their unique ability to influence, practice, listen, partner, and collaborate with anyone sharing the same aspirations. To practice what they preach. 

Shape Talent, firmly believes in the power of collaboration over competition, flexibility over rigidity, and above all, inclusion and participation. Authenticity and vulnerability are not just buzzwords but integral aspects of the journey. 

What’s your view on the current state of gender equity? 

If we take a moment to reflect on the current state of gender equity. It’s easy for many of us, especially those reading this, to forget the confines of the bubbles we live in—our cultures, societies, regions, and organisations. However, the reality is that even in the most progressive cultures and organisations, it’s often challenging to see the bigger picture. The harsh truth can be quite daunting. 

On a global scale, the United Nations projects that, at the current rate of progress, it will take a staggering 286 years to reform legal frameworks that promote, enforce, and monitor gender equality in public life. The magnitude of change required across education, safety, environment, culture, health, and representation is monumental. This is precisely why we need organisations, businesses, and corporations with the scale and influence to champion representative leadership that can spearhead this transformation. 

As a trustee and the founder of GM4Women, a charity committed to creating change through data-driven insights into employment, participation, safety, education, culture, and active lives, I’ve observed three key points. Firstly, there’s an undeniable long road ahead in our pursuit of gender equity. Secondly, there are countless remarkable women generously volunteering their time, skills, and resources in abundance. Helen Pankhurst who leads so many activist, campaign and charitable groups is a wonderful example of this. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we need more men to actively engage in this transformative journey. 

Sharon Peake and Shape Talent serve as a shining example of the kind of leadership needed to drive gender equity forward. Not only to inspire us with their vision, but also remind us that we all play a vital role in this crucial pursuit. Together, with determination and collaboration, we can accelerate the pace of change and bring us closer to a world of true gender equality. 

What have you read recently?  

I recently finished Second Spring by Kate Codrington which was a recommendation from a menopause expert and I found the sections on trauma and peri-menopause very helpful to understand. More light hearted was The Change by Kirsten Miller which I think would make a brilliant film as the female characters are fantastic in it. I want to mention The Power even though I read it a while ago – its such a fantastic read. It imagines a world where women have physical power over men.  How does it change society? What would women do in a society where they have the power? 

I’m making a concerted effort at the moment to read for pleasure not for learning after too many years of neglecting the joy of reading for escape. The book on a menopause is an exception I recognise! 

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I think any working parent, especially single parent like me, answering this question will laugh and say ‘spare time, what is that?’ That said, I know for wellbeing, performance at work and to be a brilliant parent we have to make the time. When I’m succeeding at it, I’m doing weights and boxing. Embroidery to upcycle clothes. I’d love to be doing more reading, gardening and anything to do with design, clothing and interiors. 

What is your own experience of the Three Barriers and what tips would you give women navigating their own barriers? 

One of the things I like most about the Three Barriers model is how it helps women to understand what is theirs to carry and what isn’t. Where it helps to shed light on the hurdles women face in organisations it also helps on an individual level.  You can situate yourself in relation to organisational, societal and personal. It offers you a framework to question and challenge your experiences and here-in lies your true strength and power. 

The reality is that societal barriers especially do make it harder for women.  

As a single parent working in roles which required me to travel to meetings, working unpaid hours and attend events when I had a young child – I hit a lot of barriers. I had some great understanding bosses but they weren’t able to solve the problems for me. Because many were cultural and systemic.  

To “succeed” in that scenario would have meant relying entirely on prohibitively expensive childcare, and it would have forced me to compromise on something I deeply cherished – my role as a parent. So, I made some tough decisions and came to realisations about what my future as a parent with a young child would look like. And so it happened like many others do. I left and set up my own business. Talent left the building. 

Here’s the twist: I don’t carry the weight of “mum guilt.” Instead, I see a series of choices and decisions I’ve made in response to circumstances, opportunities, and my own skills and talents. I’m doing my best with the resources available to me. 

In a world that often feels like it’s stacked against us, the Three Barriers Model is a beacon of hope. It’s a reminder that, yes, societal barriers exist, but it’s in understanding and navigating the terrain of societal, organisational, and personal challenges that we find our true power. So, don’t let the weight of the world hold you back. Unearth your strength, make your choices, and don’t carry what isn’t yours to carry.