The Renaisi Friends Network held an important event on Tuesday, one day short of International Women's Day. Created by my Renaisi colleague Tessa Horvath, who specialises in mental health and gender issues, 'Mental health and work: what's gender go to do with it?' asked us to reflect on these key questions:
- How do we support people with mental health needs into employment?
- Is it best to provide gender-sensitive services and do they make a difference?
- How do employers model good practice - both for service -users and for staff who support them?
- Even if we don't provide services for vulnerable people, what are our general assumptions about mental health and gender in the workplace?
Amongst the many excellent speakers, I was particularly impressed by Alice Williams, founder of The Luminary Bakery, which uses baking as a tool for disadvantaged women to build their skills and confidence in employment. What struck me initially about Alice's talk was her description of the support offered to women at the bakery: a structured pathway through the organisation; opportunities to co-design and create new products; a separate support system which runs alongside line management; a real focus on the individual, her passions and aspirations; an understanding of the life experiences which shape her approach to work; and flexibility in response to this which enables her to flourish.
It then occurred to me (and others in the room) that this provided an excellent model for any employer - and specifically any employer of women. Outside my role at Renaisi, I counsel women who find themselves, not so much 'disadvantaged' as 'at a disadvantage' - sometimes through trauma and violence, but often through less tangibly dramatic experiences such as motherhood and/or career change, alongside random and unthinking discrimination by their employers. What they wish for is exactly this kind of respect, empathy and flexibility as they negotiate complex lives in and out of the workplace.
I think most delegates at the event would agree that even in touching on some of these issues, we made progress in connecting with each other across organisatons and sectors. Perhaps, in thinking about the Luminary Bakery, there is something about catering to vulnerable women in society that does good for everyone else too; and something about accessing our own vulnerability in the workplace, or at a workplace event, which puts us in touch with everything that is richest and most profound about the feminine. I'd love the Luminary Bakery to take their learning to mainstream employers, share their findings and create an event or podcast for next year - this would make for a fantastic International Women's Day 2018.