International Women’s Day 2021 #ChooseToChallenge

For International Women’s Day 2021 we asked 2 of our women leaders working for the Building Better Opportunities team to share their experiences on female leadership and provide advice on how to overcome barriers.

Penny Halewood- BBO Programme Manager 

My role is to manage a large employment and training support programme, for people struggling to get into work. This involves lots of work across different organisations, to make sure all of our partners are happy, that we are achieving what we should be, changing things to keep us on track and lots of financial management and number crunching.  I love what I do because I can see the end result of the fantastic support given to people who are needing a helping hand to get closer to their goals. Initially, I found it difficult to step away from the front line of support work where I first began, but now I am happy to know that my management role is just as important, to make sure that this great work can happen in the first place. I am also mum to two primary school aged girls, and more recently also a home school teacher, which I am glad is coming to an end today as I type. 

Have you come across any challenges or barriers to your career development as a female leader?

As my family has developed, I have managed to continue to develop my career. This takes lots of personal commitment, flexibility to sometimes work at silly times of the day to work around childcare requirements, and a temporary reduction in time for yourself. I think this comes with the territory of working life with a young family.   I have changed my working pattern since having the girls, but I am pleased that I have managed to also maintain my career which is important to me.  The pandemic has intensified this, with so many extra pressures to pick up, and has been one of the hardest periods of my working life.  Having a supportive employer and a fantastic husband who shares the load has been a real support.

 What would your advice be for aspiring female leaders?

I haven’t really considered my being a woman as important, as I have built up my career. Although some of my previous roles have been in a pretty male dominated arena such as working alongside local government, I have always been confident in my personal abilities and considered that if I have been successful in the appointment, that my suitability for the post has been proved. I think actions speak louder than words.

I have worked in senior roles within the voluntary sector for the past 16 years. In the early days, when I was new to Senior Management and in my mid/late 20’s, I found my age was more of a consideration (or a surprise) to some colleagues. I do still remember one of my new staff members asking me how old I was and what my experience was, as we were having our first meeting together (a male colleague 20 years my senior). I was more than happy to give details and explain that I had already passed my interview!

What lesson/story can you share from your experiences that is unique to being a woman? 

Taking time out of my career to bring up our family was a really special time. I had almost a year off for both of our girls. There was a very short gap between the two of them, and I remember the day that my second pregnancy was announced in an all male trustees meeting, just 1 month after returning from maternity leave.  The news was greeted by silence and a few raised eye brows. This was disappointing after almost 10 years of high level commitment from me, but unfortunately part and parcel of what sometimes comes with being a woman in work.

How do you unplug yourself from work?

Life has been very different for all of us over the last year, but current pass times include lots of walks whatever the weather (and late at night to get some ‘me time’), YouTube exercise classes, and gardening. Camping in the garden has been great fun this year, and I can’t wait to get out to the coast for more scenic family camping. Spending time with friends and family across the country has been hugely missed this year, and will be the first thing we can do when restrictions are lifted. I have always said that I work hard, so that we can enjoy life to the full, spending it with the people we love.

Shamli Khanan- BBO Employment Manager 

I work on the BBO ‘Towards Work’ programme as a Manager for the Groundwork Delivery team. Having worked in the welfare to work sector for over 18 years, I have experience working with the most vulnerable people in society and this has opened my eyes to the prejudices they are faced with. Working full time along with being a mother of 4 children can be very challenging at times, and I appreciate the flexibility my employer provides as I can manage my work-life balance. I wish that more employers were as understanding and considerate as Groundwork as this would encourage more mothers to return to work after having children.

Could you name a woman who has inspired you the most?

Looking past my family members, a woman who is majorly inspiring to me is Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks had more than one prejudice working against her, not only was she a woman; but she was also an African American which meant at the time she was living with the struggle of racial equality. When approached by a white male on the bus and told to move to the back so that he could sit down, Rosa refused even though she was legally obligated to do so.

Rosa Parks at the time didn’t know the impact she would have made on society and was just sticking up for herself and her self-worth, though soon after the civil rights movement was sparked due to Rosa Parks courage, dignity and strength; leading to the boycott of the bus segregation.

Though racial stereotypes are still around, I believe that the one small choice that a brave Rosa Parks made that day has helped change the world we live in today not only as women, but as a diverse country of people with all different cultures and ethnicities working together and being more aware of each other.

What would your advice be for aspiring female leaders?

My advice for women in leadership would be to be confident, do not wait to be seen or heard, demand what you want and what you think you deserve. Be your most authentic self and don’t try to mould yourself to be a type of way just because you think it’ll get you further.

It’s unfortunate, but as woman in the industry it is easy for us to fall in to stereotypes and to be put into a box; when it comes to this, perseverance is a fundamental character, you’ll often be made to feel like you’re not enough. But know that you are, stay strong to what you are passionate about and you will eventually see the results.

The main piece of advice I would give to aspiring female leaders is to believe in yourself. Putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and having expectations that are too high to reach, will only bring you down. If you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll soon come to realise that it’s difficult for others to believe in you. Stop asking yourself if you can, as this will be the killer of your progression and you are more than capable of doing anything you put your mind to.

If you could introduce one thing to the workplace to directly benefit women what would it be?

I would love invite female leaders to the workplace and have them offer mentorship to aspiring leaders. Female leaders are not as publicised as male leaders and this can often be disheartening as it seems there are not as many women who have managed to make it to the top as there are men.

I believe having someone to look up to and to hear stories first hand of both the struggles and the successes will motivate woman in the workplace and will encourage them to take new jobs and to step out of their comfort zone. Women need to develop the mentality of if it’s something that you want to do, then why should society be the one to tell you that you can’t?

From personal experience, at job fairs I often find that there is a majority of male recruiters over female; this is something I wish to change as there are many women who turn down due to prioritising childcare over a career. Having more female recruiters could work to educating more women and helping them realise that they can raise children and have the career they are passionate about, as there are more opportunities to ask questions about childcare and how they can manage the flexibility between their work life and their children.

Being a work from home mother myself currently, I know its daunting thinking about home schooling and making dinner for my children whilst managing my work load; but knowing that there are things put in place to help relieve me of the stress is something I would want to inform other mothers about.

Despite the odds, what motivates you to stay positive?  

Preservice is key, this is something that helps me stay positive and on track as I am aware that failure is a core step of the road to success. I never give up and am always looking for ways to learn and improve. When things do get a little too stressful I try to unwind and have some time to myself whether that be a walk in the park or just having a cup of tea to relax.

Penny and Shamli work for our Building Better Opportunities team at Groundwork Greater Nottingham. If you are struggling to find work, you might be eligible for support. You can do this online via: or by emailing