08 March 2022

Why Women Shouldn’t Be Age Biased Towards Themselves


Sue De Souza has spent her entire career with the Civil Service. Having reached Grade 7 (middle management, and two grades below Senior Civil Servant), Sue was thinking about retiring rather than advancing her career.

Like many women at a similar stage in their lives, Sue fell into the trap of thinking age would be an obstacle to progression, instead, viewing her remaining years in the workplace as something to ‘see out’. All of this changed when Sue attended The Pipeline’s Leadership Summit programme, which helps women in middle management advance. 

Sue describes herself as a West End girl from Southall. She came from a working-class family and her parents worked in factories. When Sue entered the Civil Service, her family were thrilled. The belief was that a government job would be secure, a career for life and celebrated as a great achievement. A few years in however, and Sue realised that although she had seen people like herself in entry level roles, the higher she became, the less she saw people like her. When Sue joined almost 40 years ago; all the Senior Civil Servants were White Men. Sue wasn’t white, nor was she a man. Her distinct experience meant it was harder for her to relate to these more senior colleagues and she didn’t see the role models which meant that someone like her had made it too. Sue’s experience is all too familiar, and many women of colour interpret the lack of women at senior levels as a subliminal sign that it’s not possible for them to make it to the most levels of an organisation. It was only on attending the Leadership Summit, that Sue realised she didn’t understand how the Civil Services systems (promotion, sponsorship, the interview process) worked. This is true of many women in middle management roles. 

About the same time, the Cabinet Office was aware that employees’ experiences were varied, and they began introducing development programmes to support women from ethnic minorities. Recognising Sue’s potential, her manager nominated for her to attend the Leadership Summit, a three-day programme which helps women in middle management define what they want from their career. 

Sue saw an influx of younger staff joining the Civil Service and like her older colleagues, saw these individuals as bright, enthusiastic and eager to progress. She began to feel out of place. These new colleagues were brimming with ideas and energy. Sue observed “they came in with a very different attitude compared to how it was when I started”. Explaining “it was all about loyalty 30 years ago. If you were trained for a certain role, you would spend a minimum of two years in that role before moving on”. Now, younger employees are looking to progress quicker, often six months into their role and the ‘unspoken rules’ which used to apply have changed. Furthermore, as a woman with a wealth of experience, colleagues usually came to Sue for advice and guidance. They were tapping into her knowledge and experience, but it was never “would you like to be considered for promotion?” As a mature woman with considerable experience in the field, Sue felt overlooked and she was uncertain on how to develop her career.  

When Sue was nominated for Leadership Summit, she thought, “why me? Why would I need this?” One of the phrases we instil in women is “if not me, who? if not now, when?” and this time it resonated with Sue. Over three days Sue came to realise, that she’d barely touched her glass ceiling and she was about to burst through it. 

When Sue found out that her Director General, Nick Smallwood, had nominated her to go onto The Leadership Programme, she was surprised. Sue started to realise that she had sponsors after all; more senior colleagues who were prepared to support her and recommend her for new opportunities.  

During Leadership Summit, Sue was astonished by the number of talented women in her cohort, albeit she admitted feeling unsure of herself as one of only two women over 50. This created an emotional battle within herself, where Sue felt as if she had taken the place of a younger woman who had decades of their career left. This was difficult for her to overcome at first. Sue also felt uncomfortable initially on a programme for ethnic minority women. She didn’t want anyone saying she had been promoted to fill a target, yet like many women of colour, had spent her career working twice as hard to get half as far. It took a lot of people to get her to where she is now and to say she deserves the place she got comfortably. This time, Sue realised she’d earned it and she’s going to make the most of being invested in.  

The greatest impact the programme has had on Sue came from her relationship with her sponsor. One of The Pipeline’s core beliefs is that Sponsorship is a key tool when it comes to tackling the lack of diversity in the workforce. For women to gain the experiences and challenges to maximise their careers, they need someone who can advocate for them and put them forward for opportunities where they’ll gain exposure to the senior leadership team and high-profile projects. Sue described Alex Akin, the sponsor she’d been connected to as someone who would “mention her name even if she wasn’t in the room.” Being someone who was also mature, he encouraged her and made her realise that she still had a whole career ahead of her. She had the experience, so she just needed to focus on the skills she’d need to show, and the presence to communicate this to others  

With Alex’s guidance, Sue became involved in Cop26, allowing her to develop skills in planning for international events and she became somewhat of an expert in PCR testing policies at scale. Through Alex’s sponsorship, Sue was able to place herself in situations she was absolutely terrified of, but she pushed herself out of her comfort zone and nailed it! Sue became clear on her abilities as a trouble shooter; she overcame the first problem, was given another one and she overcame that too. She now has the confidence to know where and how she can make an impact in an organisation and team. 

The Leadership Summit was transformative for Sue. It reignited the fire in her and she’s going to make her years before retirement, count. Sue is trailblazing her way, collecting skills and experience to advance. She knows she is still an asset to her organisation and is continuing to grow. Furthermore, Sue is playing it forward, by being part of the Cabinet Office’s efforts to increase Diversity and Inclusion. Sue is leading on events such as “my story told” which gives women of colour across the organisation a platform to talk about their experience, inspiring others to be what they can see. We hope Sue’s story will inspire you or the women you work with. 


Sue participated in Leadership Summit for Ethnic Minority Women and wrote about her experiences for International Women’s Day 2022.