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Seeing is believing: becoming CEO for the day helped me see my power

7th March 2023 - 5 min read

Young women like Penelope took up leadership positions as part of the girls’ takeover through plan international UK. Today she continues to practise the power she harnessed that day.

took part in a Girls’ Takeover at Plan International UK.

I was always a feminist. A young girl with a disability, I refused to read books which did not make me feel intelligent, capable, and empowered. The world responded that it was impossible for girls like me to be any of those things. Engaging with feminist leaders, from school teachers to politicians, carries a large risk knowing the majority of feminist leaders used ableism to reach their position. Finding a safe space with fellow feminists only to find out you are not wanted in them is unpleasant at best

My application to the Girls’ Takeover to be CEO for the day at Plan International UK was evidence of the burnout this caused. It contained a video essay explaining and correcting what I disliked about one of their advertisements based on my lived experience. Needless to say, my voice shook a little while recording from nerves. 

I was surprised to find out I had been accepted. This was one of the first times non-disabled women not only shared my vision, but wanted me to lead on it too. Never before had strangers trusted my ability to openly express my opinions. 

Penelope joined Rose Caldwell as CEO of Plan International UK for one day

On the day

By scheduling my own day and accepting invitations to activities that peaked my interest, I had a type of opportunity I had not experienced before; one to practise power.  

I met my fellow CEO, Rose, over breakfast and a tour before my day began. I was nervous, but the words she spoke were passionate and clear.  

Rose spoke about the gender discrimination she fought in the male-dominated finance sector. She said that, in spite of her eventual success, she felt similar anticipation then to what I was most likely feeling as I sat with her.  This gave me an appreciation that, while the patriarchy corners women, in doing so it give us the tools and motivation to rally against the norms and ideals presented to us. I had now seen a female leader openly embrace contradiction and personal change; I knew at that point I could do the same. 

Later, I heard first-hand from local SAGE project leaders (a project dedicated to adolescent education in Zimbabwe) about the change achieved through building a community supporting female truth. Examples of women practising power began to fill my brain.  

With new-found hope, I entered the afternoon out of my comfort zone. Reassured by takeover organisers, I signed up to lead an all-staff meeting attended by over 100 of my new colleagues. I knew that I would be the only wheelchair user in the room, but I felt comfortable I was in an environment willing to learn. So, I shared my own experience, through discussions of feminist disability theory. My voice did not shake that day.  

Penelope leads an all-staff meeting during her takeover day at Plan International UK
Penelope leads an all-staff meeting during her takeover day at Plan International UK

Lasting impression

The best way to summarise the experience is to tell you I keep practising this power. 

My voice is just as firm 6 months on arguing against the world’s laws - now openly specialising my studies in feminist legal theory.  When I was recently in a situation surrounded by non-disabled men debating the discrimination women like me face, I too was passionate and clear this time, having witnessed Rose do similar during an external meeting.  What’s more, I recently became the first female wheelchair user to co-chair a council for The Foundation for Educational Development.  

Not everyone wants to be a leader, but girls are deprived of even figuring out their answer. From being the first to leave education in times of conflict and disaster, to facing increased gender-based and sexual harassment when they are allowed to stay, girls are taught to cower. The Girls’ Takeover teaches them to make their own crowns.

While it is essential we venture against every one of these injustices, we can only do so if we have an opportunity to put our beliefs into practice. As the positivity from a single day as CEO continues to radiate for me, I think signing up for a Girls Takeover should be where you begin.  

Girls’ Takeovers are organised by Plan International UK for International Day of the Girl in October. Find out how to get involved.

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