Fashion Intern interviewed Stephanie Archer, a mentor working for The Girls Network a charity that aims to inspire and empower girls from the least advantaged communities by connecting them with a mentor and a network of professional female role models. The Girls Network believes that no girls should have their futures limited by their gender, background or parental income. All girls should be supported to realise their ambitions, to discover their self-worth, and to develop their capacity to shape their world and their future. In the climate we currently find ourselves in, now more than ever, there is a need for a network helping young women harness their potential and feel supported throughout their career journey.
Stephanie, could you just talk through the meaning behind The Girls Network & its ultimate aim?
The Girls Network is a charity that helps underprivileged girls by matching them to mentors, like myself who can help with their confidence and steps towards their future career. The idea was really born from two teachers, who noticed that girls were a lot less likely to put their hand up in class and contribute. They found that the network we all have is very much linked to factors such as how much financial income your family has or whether any of your family have been to university before, ultimately influencing how confident you feel towards your future. For example, if everyone in your family has a certain type of job and hasn’t gone to university, there are certain jobs you might not feel you aren’t allowed to have or even can have.
I know myself, one of the reasons I wanted to volunteer for The Girls Network was because I knew from a young age I wanted to be a journalist, but we didn’t have a lot of money growing up and I was the first out of my family to go to University. If you do come from a background where there isn’t a lot of money, things like wanting to go and do a master’s feel a little harder, and unpaid internships can feel impossible. I was very much focussed while I was at University on how I could gain as much experience as possible so once I graduated I didn’t have to do a year of unpaid work. I remember once I finished my undergraduate, thinking I didn’t have enough experience to go out there into the industry, so I wanted to do an MA in magazine journalism. I did loads of research and I remember going to my parents and being like “I want to do an MA” and they were quite upset because they couldn’t pay the tuition fees but I reassured them it was fine and I had a plan. I laid out 4 pieces of paper, explaining exactly where I was going to get the money. I did it all myself through researching and that’s something mentors from The Girls Network can do, understanding sometimes it’s a bit harder but still able do. I had come from that place where options are a bit more challenging but I was very determined and driven and had a lot of support. I went out of my way to meet people in the industry and see what advice they had to offer. So really your network is so important and this is what really appeals to me about The Girls Network, as they aim to show girls what network they have at their disposal and how they can tap into it but also expand it.
How did you get involved with the charity and what is your main role?
Initially, I knew I wanted to give back and do some volunteering. I started looking up volunteering in my area and a mentoring job for The Girls Network came up, for which I explored a bit more about what they did and their goals in trying to help girls which really resonated with me. I think especially in connecting with young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, I felt like my own story could help as I have managed to navigate through these real challenges. Mentoring also reiterates to yourself how far you have come and it feels really good being able to pass on that knowledge to someone else and see their confidence grow. A lot of our conversations are about opening up girls’ minds to what they could do beyond what they know.
I have been mentoring for about 7 months now and we look at what the mentee is interested in and what subjects they might enjoy and from there looking at what kind of job they would like to have in the future. Especially at the moment, this kind of relationship is so important because if your mentee is still in school, it’s about helping them manage school work now they are at home and not seeing their friends. Also talking through how they can keep on track with their goals despite the fact it feels like the world is on pause and actually using that as an opportunity to spend time thinking about and working towards what it is they want to do. For example, if a mentee wants to be a fashion buyer, we would talk about ways in which they can showcase their skills such as looking at outfits on Pinterest, equally a stylist could be doing a shoot with their friends using each other clothes and it’s that kind of brainstorming between mentor and mentee that help these girls work towards a goal. There is definitely an aspect of emotional support that comes as a result of the practical kind of relationship and working towards goals and confidence is such a huge thing and actually all of these practical steps, from what they are reading to the videos they are watching whether it’s an inspiring Ted Talk or helping to manage their time, we really do help with their emotional wellbeing.
Does The Girls Network offer any financial support to their mentees?
The Girls’ Network doesn’t directly offer financial support to mentees, however our network is there to support girls find their way in the workplace, find paid work experience opportunities, and become financially savvy. Mentors are encouraged to engage in conversations about financial stability, remuneration that comes with different careers, and what it looks like, say, to make a living as a freelancer. While mentors cannot support their mentees financially for safeguarding reasons, we never want our girls to miss out on any enriching opportunities due to funds, so as much as we can we try to support with this, for example by utilising the network to access free tickets to theatre shows or exhibitions.
What is the most common barrier young girls face? With the current #blacklivesmatter movement shaping 2020 & raising a lot of discussions, has this affected your line of work?
Confidence, I think is the biggest barrier and that transcends every kind of background and race. Black girls, in particular, are facing a bigger barrier as they are not only navigating what kind of career they want and the steps to get there, but also having to navigate their way around all of these race issues. I think confidence is a huge thing every girl needs help with. Whether it’s understanding your own worth and your own strengths and what you are good at but also just opening your mind up to all the opportunities that are out there. I think a lot of us have very limiting beliefs that we sometimes aren’t even aware of. So thoughts like “I probably can’t be in a managerial position because none of my family members have reached that point before” can be quite limiting or sometimes they are really self-conscious because everyone in the room is white so they feel they don’t deserve to be there. I think a lot of the time, it’s opening that mindset and thinking “you absolutely have a right to be here, you deserve to be here and you can be successful and there are no limits to that success.” I think a lot of the time we set our own limits subconsciously based on all kinds of factors, our race, background, etc.
Can women have it all, the dream job, the family, the beautiful home? Or is it still a case of juggling & sacrificing a career and a family? Due to Covid-19, does this ‘return’ to home mean the burden of home-schooling & childcare falls on women?
I think there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to facilitate women’s success in particular as they approach motherhood. There is very much a feeling amongst women that they have to make a choice between having a career and having a baby and a lot of really successful women that I know who are mothers (I’m pregnant myself so I have all of this to come) have had to make really hard decisions in order to try and ‘have it all’ and I think the key lessons that I have learned from my own network of amazing, successful and inspiring women is that ‘having it all’ is a bit of a myth and once you understand that, it frees you to make decisions ideally without guilt. I know a founder of a really successful business in Brighton, who didn’t take much of maternity leave because she didn’t want to leave her business unattended so she had to try and juggle time with her baby whilst also managing her business for at least the first year and she didn’t feel like she was doing either perfectly or even very well but she did it and is doing amazing now. There is no perfect solution and it’s about finding the right balance for you. There is a lot more that society, the government, and companies can do to facilitate women who want to work but equally spend time with their kids. Having more child care support and pop up crèches in offices is crucial. More companies need to be open to flexibility with women working at home and open to hybrid working where women are able to manipulate their hours around the time of day. That would really help a lot of women to stay at work so they don’t have to choose.
How does The Girls Network select the right people?
I have gone through interviews and training so that I understand the role of a mentor and safeguarding. We have a ‘matching day’ which is a bit like speed dating, you move around and get chatting to the girls and at the end, you are matched. From that day on you, both are working together throughout a whole year. So you build up a real relationship and rapport and in the end you have a ‘graduation ceremony’ where we all come together and celebrate the goals that have been achieved. It’s quite a lovely celebratory day which is really nice and such a lovely thing to do. I do think that it’s important to help younger women navigate first job dilemmas and send the elevator down, helping other girls navigate the route to success.
If you could give any advice to a younger you, on stepping out into the big wide world of work what would it be?
I think I would say not to worry about what people think as much. For a lot of women, it is so natural for us to feel like we need to censor ourselves or our thoughts and opinions as we don’t want to come across as too assertive or bossy. We have been told for such a long time that women are very soft, lovely, emotional, and caring and it’s okay for men to be really blunt and efficient with how they direct people. I think my main learning has been to be more confident in my own voice. It’s learning to say what you feel in a direct and confident way without mitigating anything of what you are saying. It’s the only way you can really have influence in a work situation, if you start with a conversation saying “I’m not sure this is really right” you have already lost half the room.
What does the future look like for The Girls’ Network?
In the next 5 years, we see The Girls’ Network growing to support even more girls in more regions across the country, working with girls not just in cities but also in more rural and isolated areas. We see a powerful network of women and girls championing each other, providing a platform for girls’ voices to be heard. We also see us supporting individual organisations to achieve gender equality in their workplace. Finally, we see the charity as an expert voice both in articulating the challenges faced by girls in the UK, but also in sharing the amazing impact of mentoring in helping girls be ambitious for their future and achieve those ambitions.
If you are a woman and you are based and work in one of the regions we work in, you can apply to become a mentor with us. If you can’t commit to attend our training or to a full year of mentoring but would still like to be involved, you can support us in other ways (e.g. by running a workshop, organising an event, providing work experience to some of our girls, fundraising, donating, or connecting us with other potential mentors, partners or schools. These are great options for men who want to support our mission, too!). The Girls’ Network also works with corporate organisations to create bespoke and mutually beneficial partnerships, with the ultimate aim of securing unlimited futures for all young women. If you work for a school and you are based in one of the regions we currently work in, you can approach us to put forward a cohort of your girls to be mentored. You’ll need to contact the relevant network manager in your region to get started.