This is the second in a series of blogs SEUK is working with Westminster University on, through which we explore ways in which social enterprises empower women, and collectively, advance gender equality. We want to hear your success stories, in particular, how you navigate the barriers and challenges in advancing gender equality and empowering women. Hopefully, we will inspire as many social enterprises as possible, to strive toward a more equal society. 

For this second blog, I spoke to Kate Nation, founder of Turtle Dove. Turtle Dove, based in Cambridge, seeks to improve the future of young women between the ages of 14 and 24 who are at risk of becoming unemployed through not having the confidence or experience to seek employment. I asked Kate what gender equality and empowerment meant to Turtle Dove and how she thought the social enterprise sector can advance gender equality and empowerment.

Kate explained Turtle Dove’s mission “…we were very specific about wanting to provide an alternative youth work model for young women… we explored a model that would solely engage them in a youth work setting, to address what they felt was their primary need. We provide young women opportunities to gain work experience at functions and events, whether our own events or those organised by others. It is about young women (often disengaged, with anxiety problems, coming through the care system, having experience abuse of some form) being in a female only environment, not being held back or influenced by their male peers. Our research among this population showed how important it is to young women to have a female only space that’s safe, as lots of them would have experienced negative experiences from men or their male peers.”

Turtle Dove’s model is different from the traditional youth work model, because under the latter, young women would often come with their friends or with their peer group, people that they knew. Turtle Dove adopted a different model, one in which it builds confidence, supports young women in an environment where they do not usually know each other and might not initially be friends. They have a chance to look at themselves as individuals, not part of a group. Kate explained “Our experience is that the young women who come to us either have written themselves off or feel that society has done so. So we provide emotional support, build confidence and offer work experience as a package…”

turtle dove gender empowerment blog web

But what does all this have to do with promoting gender equality?  Kate was explicit “…for me it is about young women and shouting about the fact that many of these young women are disadvantaged in relation to employment prospects, have poor mental health and anxiety as a result of negative life experiences, so there is a great need here to help them get out there into the world. If we do not address a social issue, or acknowledge it, this will have wider adverse effects. Not supporting these young women? Well, it’s not only going to be to their detriment, but to all of our detriment. If we are not investing in 50% of the future workforce, our economy is going to struggle, not only because these young women are then likely to not be contributing, but because the state, the private sector will need to spend further resources on helping them. If interventions are not put in place early, then the cost down the road will be far greater. We want equal opportunities for them so they stand an equal chance in the world.

I asked Kate to provide a few examples of young women which Turtle Dove has helped back on their feet.

  • Alicia was with Turtle Dove for a couple of years. She then moved on to a job. What was particularly powerful was that in this new job, she felt confident in challenging a poorly managed work environment. Alicia worked in a COVID Ward, working in the midst of a crisis with herself having high anxiety. When things did not change, she was brave to walk away and sought another job. She now has a secure income, has her own flat, she’s saving for things that she wants to do in the future, she’s thinking about what she’s going to study. Under Turtle Dove’s support, she managed to re-build her life from coming out of an abusive relationship and having very low self-esteem and high anxiety to a position where she is able to improve, enjoy and feel proud of her life.
  • Melanie is a young woman who was struggling at school and came to Turtle Dove. At school, she was angry, and appeared obnoxious because she did not feel safe, listened to or respected. She could not communicate her needs to her teachers. Being in an environment in Turtle Dove enabled her to build her confidence. She was able to go back to the environment in which she felt unsafe and which she did not feel she had control over. She finally talked to her teachers about the issues she was facing. She asked for help. If you can’t ask for help when you are struggling, then you’re going to feel things are out of control. Being in an adult environment and working as a team where it is encouraged to ask for help in-order to get a job done collectively well is a transferrable and invaluable skill.
  • Caroline had a chaotic home life and came out of an abusive relationship. She had a limited support network. At Turtle Dove, she regularly worked at the events it was a part of and travelled a long way to do so. She learnt to be proactive and created supportive environments for other young women. She would check in on them and she would foster positive relationships. She went on to have a baby, started her own life and continued to engage in her wonderful way at Turtle Dove.  She’s a young mum, and a fantastic one at that!

Turtle Dove - social enterprises and gender empowerment

Finally, I asked Kate how she thought the social enterprise sector can more effectively advance gender equality and empowerment. Kate emphasised the importance of social enterprises having gender equality benchmarks and standards, and adequate support so that they can reach those benchmarks and standards.

She stressed “…benchmarks are important, they are there to help us improve. It’s not about wagging a finger, it’s about saying, well, this is the standard (for gender equality). How do we, as social enterprises, get there? What do we need? Do we need training to meet those standards and benchmarks for gender equality? For organisations such as Turtle Dove, for example, it is important, when promoting gender equality and empowerment, for staff to be trauma informed. If we are not, where can we get that training? What kind of budget might we need? Where would funding come from?”

She continued, “…so, it is about identifying needs and gaps and then asking, how do we help social enterprises meet the standard for gender equality? How can we support you? I wish that something like this existed early on when I was setting Turtle Dove up, because as a founder you’ve got so much to think about…So much to learn and so much to do. I wish someone had come in and said we’re going to do a needs assessment of your organization …and for your organisation to meet the gender equality quality assurance, you need to e.g. put an advert out for this type of skill set, operate your governance this or that way, check the relevance of your strategy for gender equality etc. etc.”

But who should be responsible for offering this support to social enterprises to meet gender equality standards? Kate thought  several actors could do so, including government, stakeholders in the community, or even a combination of partners from statutory and voluntary sectors. Social enterprise membership organisations, too, can liaise closely with local government in providing support to members to achieve that gender equality benchmark.

There is another reason for meeting gender equality benchmarks and standards – social enterprises who do so earn the confidence of grant giving bodies, of government, of the communities they serve.

A final thought from Kate, “…social enterprises promoting gender equality and empowerment need to move in the same direction. We need to move collectively, toward that same goal. We do not want to be going in different directions to avoid organisations going rogue, not being supported or duplicating work! But there will be negative repercussions for gender equality stemming from a lack of expert led guidance resulting in a lack of benchmarking, support, direction and needs mapping – all of which will hinder our mission and hold us back from doing our job of advancing gender equality well.”

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We want to hear from more social enterprises working to create a gender-equal world both stories of positive change and also importantly the barriers and challenges you are facing in advancing gender equality and empowering women. Please email L.Miles@westminster.ac.uk if you’d like to take part in this series of blogs.