Impact stories from women choosing to 'Break the Bias' this International Women's Day.
This International Women's Day, we will be raising money for WAGGGS' flagship leadership event, the Juliette Low Seminar (JLS). Here are stories from inspirational JLS alumni about the impact this Seminar has had on their lives, and their journey to breaking the bias.
Nadine El Achy, Lebanon
The first JLS I attended as a participant was in Pax lodge in 1998. I was 23 years old and just finishing university. I think what makes JLS special is it’s the most prestigious event in WAGGGS in terms of leadership training.
I think the JLS is tailored in a way that people prepare so much before you get there, that when you arrive you feel at ease. It’s a safe space where you can contribute, share your worries and your dreams.
During JLS you go through a journey, you start by discovering yourself and others. Then understanding your place within WAGGGS and the role you can play within WAGGGS globally. Once you leave JLS you feel there are no boundaries around what you can do. This is how I felt on the last day - I hope my Member Organisation can cope with my vison and dreams! This is the effect of the JLS. You feel so much power and shared dreams that you feel anything is possible. You feel unstoppable. I felt the world was too small for me after finishing.
I wanted to change the programmes for the girls, they were too old fashioned. More than handcrafts and songs, I wanted us to focus on our girls understanding that guides are more than this. They should have a voice. I initiated within my Association, a team that worked on updating the Girl Scout's curriculum. It went quite well, and we got the approval of the National Board.
Later I was part of the planning team in 2006, for JLS in Sangam. Being part of this pushed me to completely change my career. I had worked in advertising, then I decided I just wanted to work with people and invest more in personal development leadership. Now my full-time job is around training and consultancy and 80% of my work is with NGOs. This came out of the JLS. It doesn’t just give you the content and information, it changes your vision of the world. It changes your philosophy of looking at life and changing your understanding of leadership. WAGGGS gave us this, it created a space to explore personal and global leadership.
If we link breaking the bias with JLS, when you enter a JLS we are all equal, there is no difference between each other. It is a safe place, no one is treating you differently or expecting something from you different to what they would expect from someone else. Showing you don’t believe in the bias. Our organisation should nurture an environment where there is no bias to break.
Elsbeth Henderson, Ireland
Anyone who joins Guiding, whether they realise it or not, are involved in an organisation that helps them cope with bias. They know to be themselves, or get sufficiently confident to overcome bias and to be leaders themselves. I saw it in my working life, that people who were involved in Guiding were more self-confident, without being in your face. All of what underpins guiding, enables members to have the confidence, to go ahead and do whatever they feel is right for whatever they are dealing with at the time.
Guiding helps you to become resilient – because it’s part of what the Movement is all about, and it happens without you even knowing it. It’s to do with the way you live, the wonderful experience you have, and all of that helps to form a person without being aware of it. My Guiding experience has enabled me to become a leader, I didn’t set out or expect to be that, but in Guiding environment, everyone is equal, and everyone uses their talents, whatever they are, in the best environment they can be in – that’s what makes WAGGGS such a wonderful world organisation to be privileged to belong to.
Alphonsine Kabagabo, Rwanda
I am from Rwanda and when I lived there, I became very involved with Guiding. I went from being a Brownie, to a Girl Guide, to the leader of the groups in my schools, to become a member of the National Committee. Then later International Commissioner. I was Regional Commissioner in 1981 when I visited Our Chalet to attend the JLS.
JLS was my first time travelling to Europe. When I arrived, it was my first time connecting with many other girls from around the world; Pakistan, Lebanon, Burundi, America, Europe. It taught me straight away, this is an international organisation that facilitates learning about other cultures.
I discovered that even though we are so different, we have the same kind of desire and aspiration to become leaders and change the world. I got so excited. I used to think I cannot do this on my own and now I am about to connect with other girls and other women like me and together we can change the world. We can bring peace and cultural understanding.
I then got to develop friendships through the seminar, having a chat with someone from France or Belgium and realising we can work together. I started developing those partnerships to really support Girl Guides to grow and recruit more girls into Guiding. I learnt about WAGGGS, what they do and the opportunities available for girls and young women. This would help me to develop our own Association.
The JLS helped me get a job with WAGGGS. They identified me as a young woman with potential to grow and become a leader. I went to Our Cabaña for a training, I worked on the UNESCO scholarship, I went to Girl Guides in France to learn, and I went to Pax Lodge. It opened all those opportunities for me.
Through my role at WAGGGS I started visiting countries and every Chief Commissioner was 50 and above and my commitment and vision was to bring more young women into decision making. I began training young women and giving them opportunities to learn, to overcome the age bias in positions of power in the Africa Region. Experience comes with age. A big bias to break.
It gave me the opportunities to become who I am, grow my leadership skills, my international connections, and my passion for advocacy. JLS was a big life-changing opportunity for me it helped me realise my dream of becoming who I want to be.
I am now the director for Refugee Women. An organisation that supports women here in the UK who seek asylum. We help to really build their confidence and allow women to rebuild their life, to give them the skills and the voice.
Ana Maria Mideros Gadea, Peru
I am from Peru, which is a mixed county and women don’t have the same opportunities as men. I was a partner in a law firm where I was the only woman. So, I really had to stand up for my rights, and people respect that. I have supported and encouraged women who have faced bias. We don’t need to accept how things are, if we believe they are wrong, we need to stand to make the changes. You might not see the changes, but people who come after will see what you’ve been fighting for.
You have to continue doing the work, it’s not something you can do on your own. Through being Chair of the WAGGGS World Board, girls have come to me and said they are not getting opportunities, not because of their gender, but people get the roles because they are older. Ageism is a bias. I say to them that they can achieve it, but they are stronger working in collaboration with others, identify older people who can be your ally. Those are the ones who will help you and fight for you. But after all we have gone through, people still think young women need to learn before they get roles. But how much do they need to learn before they are ready? People are still learning every day. WAGGGS is a learning organisation. You can make mistakes, but that is not something you have failed for, but is your opportunity to continue learning. We have tried to open the door for young people, but there is a huge population of older people who feel like they are being left behind.
Senator Kay Patterson, Australia
As a 14-year-old in Australia, I had just left school and was working as a secretary. I lived for my Friday’s going to Rangers, it was a great place to make friends. In 1963 there was the opportunity to go on an international trip, to the Juliette Low Seminar in Mexico – I had never left Australia before. I was lucky to be selected for this opportunity and had to leave my job as I couldn’t get the eight weeks leave that I needed.
When I flew to Mexico, the cost of the air fare was $3,000, twice as much as my annual salary! There were no other women on the plane and 120 people came to wave me off. When I arrived at JLS there were 10 different countries represented, I was the only person who wasn’t in school or university. This opportunity was like winning the lottery, I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime, and the experience encouraged me to go back to school and university. I returned home from JLS, saved for two years and went back to High School, followed by university and eventually a PhD! This was at a time when only 5% of people went to university. I taught at different universities looking at the study of ageing, this experience eventually led me to politics!
In 1987 I was elected to the Senate, I was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary and Minister, I was the 8th female cabinet minister in Australian history. And all of this is where my JLS experience took me, I would never have gone on to achieve these things if it wasn’t for the encouragement at JLS. Coming from Australia, just after the war – there was a lot of prejudice. JLS and Girl Guiding broke down this prejudice for me. JLS exposed me to people from different cultures, Australia was very mono-cultural, at JLS I saw young women who were doing amazing things – it exposed me to the potential young women can have.
JLS changed my life and I have lifelong friendships from around the world, not only from participants, but their children. You meet girls from everywhere and you are exposed to leaders who are teachers, lawyers, doctors, people doing all sorts of things. So many biases are intersectional, Guiding breaks these down – through your exposure to leaders of all ages, people of all nationalities.
During my career working with ageism, I have seen that if you take on bias about your age, ‘I am frail, I am old, I can’t do this’ it can reduce your life by seven years. Women also think this. But if you stand up and are bold, we have a place to play, we should be treated equally, fairly and with respect, you can overcome this bias.