Stop & think

As we mark International Women’s Day, we all need to reflect on the impact of our behaviour on others, says Karen Middleton 

CSP CEO Karen Middleton
CSP CEO Karen Middleton

I am often asked to speak about my journey of becoming a female chief executive. The focus of the first interview I did with Frontline in 2014 was being the first woman and the first physiotherapist in the role – I’m not sure which was the most surprising!

I did feel awkward when this was mentioned, because whilst I’ve always been conscious of my being the first physiotherapist in the role, I never really thought about being a woman. My early presentations dismissed this having any impact on my career and I am ashamed to say now, I was irritated about the focus on my gender. My attitude was, ‘stop being a victim and get on with it’.

However, over the years, and particularly as I have understood more about inequality, I have reflected on both how my experience has not been typical of many other women who’ve found their potential stymied, as well as the behaviours I’ve experienced that a man most likely wouldn’t have. I am clear these are micro aggressions that perhaps were so ingrained and routine or ‘institutionalised’ that I barely noticed them. Being asked whether I would be planning to have children or, when I asked for support for a master’s degree, being declined because I was ‘likely to give up work soon’, come to mind. 

Whilst I have become a CEO despite the micro aggressions, my gender should not have been an issue.

When I moved into general management, which was more male dominated, I now look back on how my behaviour shifted to ‘fit in’ – perhaps less assertive, more subservient, even flirtatious. No-one indicated that this was how I should behave, it was more something I learnt over time. It was also during this period that not having children became a ‘thing’: I lost count of the number of women who made assumptions and asked why I had decided not to have children.

At the same time, I remember working in the Department of Health and enjoying the fact I was part of the ‘in’ crowd – and then realising this had nothing to do with my ability as a civil servant, but more to do with the fact I can talk about football in depth, particularly on a Monday when the weekend’s fixtures and results were forensically examined.

Throughout this journey, my gender should not have been an issue, for anyone. As we mark International Women’s Day this month, I want to celebrate all the women who have already fulfilled their potential and also those who are still pushing. We all have the ability to make someone feel included or excluded by our everyday actions – so we all need to stop, think and reflect on our behaviour and the impact it has on others.  

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