Jeni Thakrar is the founder of Inspiring Girls-Hemel Hempstead, a project that connects school girls of all ages with inspiring professional women in our area. Last month, Jeni invited Imagination to write about her motivations for founding the project. The aim of the project is to encourage more girls to consider careers that traditionally are viewed as male-dominated, such as those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Here’s what she had to say:
As a young girl, I had dreams of making a bold mark on the world. I wanted to be the first British female Indian astronaut in space, I wanted to be a writer, and then latterly a news reader. I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I even dreamed about co-presenting the 10 O’clock news with Sir Trevor McDonald! In those pre-internet days, I was reliant upon the advice and counsel of teachers, parents and family friends. And, although I didn’t really know it, people like me.
The only role models of colour on TV at that time that I can recall were Sir Trevor McDonald, Moira Stewart, Meera Syal and latterly the cast of Goodness Gracious Me. All credible role models, but their lives were far removed from mine: an only child, living on a council estate, with a parent who worked as a skilled embroiderer and another who was mentally ill.
Whilst I had wonderful, caring neighbours, all the young people around me worked locally, either in retail or childcare, or had children as soon as they completed their GCSEs. I didn’t hear of any other success stories of those who had broken the mould and achieved their ambitions. That’s not to say they didn’t exist, just that it wasn’t really a topic for general conversation.
Doubts about my own ability began to multiply in my mind, together with fear about the unknown and failing miserably meant I was too afraid to articulate my dreams and attempt to turn them into reality. Fast forward over 20 years and my career has evolved and presented me with many opportunities I would never have dreamt possible. Today, I am the UK lead for Inclusion and Diversity for an insurance company.
My eyes had always been half open to the differences between men and women, either at home or in the workplace. But it was only in the last eight years that I felt I was able to make a difference.
I started mentoring young people, who were navigating those same steps as I had done. In the workplace, I inserted myself into a developing gender balance network, where we pushed for things like development of a women’s leadership programme (it led to a 25% increase in women achieving promotion), better access to mentoring, better transparency about internal job vacancies and promotion opportunities, and better return to work options for women who had taken a break from their careers.
During this time, I moved to Hemel Hempstead and quickly made friends with other professional women. I was always amazed and inspired to learn that my friends were (and still are) engineers, doctors, lawyers, economists and architects.
It was really when my daughters were born that I looked, with fresh eyes, at the ongoing problems we face in society of a gender imbalance in STEM roles, or in senior management positions, or that women were still expected to be the main caregiver in a family.
Before, I had heard that the reason why women weren’t achieving was because we lacked confidence! Now that that excuse has grown tired and threadbare, we hear that there aren’t enough women in the ‘pipeline’. These pipelines are into STEM careers, financial careers, all the way through to senior executive level careers.
At the same time, I was dismayed to read research that found that children as young as seven were already deciding what was gender appropriate in terms of future career options.
Past and personal experiences, combined with research was what helped develop the idea for the Inspiring Girls-Hemel Hempstead project. I dreamed further about the possibility of connecting young school girls with women from the local community. These women epitomise credible, authentic role models and show young girls that if they have done it, then so can they.
Each of the events run by Inspiring Girls-Hemel Hempstead is designed to showcase a wide range of careers (and illustrate that, for example, careers in law extend far beyond being a lawyer or barrister), but also, introduce stories about personal resilience, grit, determination and self-belief. Stuff you don’t get in textbooks, or through Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook posts, but simply through connecting with others who have been there, done that and continue to inspire.
Imagination Technologies has spoken at three of our events, highlighting that a career in electronic engineering isn’t just for boys, as well as the benefits of working in such a creative industry.
In the year that the project has been live, we’ve reached just under 450 girls and the feedback from them has been amazing, such as “if you work hard and believe in yourself you can reach your goals” and “I’m more confident about my future choices,” and “I found out about jobs I had never heard of.” That, I think, is an awesome achievement that would not have been possible had it not been down to women – and their organisations – seeing the value and potential impact that local, voluntary initiatives like this can have on young girls. It really is an exciting time to be a girl!
About Jeni Thakrar
Jeni founded the Inspiring Girls-Hemel Hempstead project in January 2018 after several local teachers had spoken about the lack of future career aspiration amongst some of their female students. Jeni realised through her personal network of many amazing, talented and inspiring professional women in the local area, she could make a difference. She established this project to connect professional women with young female students to help inspire young girls to realise and achieve their full potential.