Polly Neate is CEO of the charity Women’s Aid, a federation working to provide support to women and to eradicate domestic violence. It’s an important and interesting role, as you will discover. In a previous role she was a journalist of Community Care, a publication much read by social workers (including me when I was one.) Hence my first question:
Jane: Polly, did you ever think you might be able to change the world by going into social work?
Polly: I never thought it would enable me to change the world but I did think quite seriously about going into social work at one point. I worked for Community Care for a number of years, and was really inspired by very many social workers I met. It’s an extremely difficult job and I think has become more difficult during the years I’ve been observing it, but that’s not why I decided not to do it. The main reason was that I felt I didn’t have the right strengths and personal qualities to do it well. I don’t think I would have either the wisdom or the ability to step back that are required when you have to make decisions that have a huge impact on another person’s life.
Don’t you find you have to do that anyway in your current role at Women’s Aid?
Well, I’ve been a senior manager for many years, including my time at Women’s Aid, and of course in that role you have to make decisions that affect people’s lives: the people who work for your organisation. But those rarely have the kind of impact on people that social workers’ decisions do, and they are not an everyday occurrence. Women’s Aid’s work has a direct impact on women’s and children’s lives, but I am not a practitioner working directly with women. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think I would be suited to that practitioner role. There are a lot of different roles in the struggle to end violence against women, and in all work for social justice, and the important thing is to have the self knowledge to know what you can do. As a leader, too, I try to understand my own limitations so that I can have people around me whose skills and strengths complement mine.
What exactly does Women’s Aid do? I know it’s a federation i.e. communities set up their own branches under the umbrella of Women’s Aid. Does that feel a bit like herding cats sometimes? ;>)
Not at all, though I’m sure that idea makes a lot of people wary of working for the national bodies of federations. It’s important to be accountable to the members of the federation, and to be clear about what’s their role and what’s the role of the national body. We support our member organisations in various ways, including direct help with sustainability and finding funding, national service standards and a Quality Mark, and a case management system which records data on the outcomes our services achieve with women and children. We are the national voice for our members, raising awareness, campaigning and influencing policy. We provide the National Domestic Violence Helpline in partnership with Refuge, and the Women’s Aid Survivors Forum, which provides support for survivors of domestic abuse online. We also undertake and commission research and gather data in a variety of ways. As well as our members, and most importantly, we put the voices, views and experiences of survivors themselves at the heart of everything we do.
Actually there is a real strength in being a federation because the local services genuinely respond to the needs of local women and communities, but we are also able to have a strong national voice and a real influence on policy at the highest level. And because the national organisation is relatively small – we have 220 members, and the central or head office of a national charity that size would typically be much bigger than us – we are agile and responsive, not overly bureaucratic.
What was your very first paid job? Did it give a clue as to where you might be headed? Were you brought up in a particularly fair minded family?
My first job was at Cosmopolitan but I didn’t stay long because it wasn’t for me. But I had wanted to be a journalist since I was at school. I’ve always loved writing and I still do. As my career went on I wanted more and more to use journalism to push for social justice. Then I came to believe that I could have more impact in the charity sector, and realised that I had transferable skills.
My parents have a very strong sense of the importance of doing the right thing. I’m from a middle class, very comfortable background. My dad always said to us, don’t think we have these advantages because we’re special or clever or good people. It’s just because we are lucky. As a child, I defininely saw things in a way that made injustices stand out, and that was partly because of my parents. Having said that, I still have a lot to learn about being rigorous in understanding the privileges I have and their impact on others.
Did you follow a linear path to CEO? Just how does one get to be head of a major charity? Was it something you planned?
Well, I didn’t plan it for a long time because I was following a completely different career path as a journalist. But I really enjoy playing a leadership role, which I found out when I was an editor. When I started off as a writer, I thought there would be nothing worse than being “management”. I sort of saw it as a sell-out, no creativity, and just thinking about budgets all the time. I think for a profoundly, awesomely creative person that might be the case. But for me, I found I enjoyed being a manager and trying to be a good leader.
When I moved into the charity sector it was at Senior Management Team level in a very large charity (Action for Children), so moving to be CEO of a smaller organisation seemed a logical next step. When I found out the job at Women’s Aid was vacant, I knew I desperately wanted it. I put in a lot of effort to get this job! And honestly it hasn’t disappointed for a second. It’s a huge privilege to be in this role, to be able to play a part in what is truly a movement as well as an organisation. And there are women who have been part of this movement for decades, many of them running local services: it’s important to value both what they bring and what I bring. A combination of confidence in what I have to offer and valuing what others offer. That’s what I aspire to – I definitely don’t get it right all the time.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your role?
When we have campaign successes, actually changing things for survivors of domestic abuse, that’s exciting. Also, I’ve loved the process of working with a lot of other people to develop our comprehensive new response to domestic abuse, Change that lasts, because when I joined Women’s Aid and learned more about how different agencies respond to survivors, I was horrified, quite frankly. I was truly shocked by the fact that understanding of domestic abuse is so poor in so many agencies, specialists are so often disrespected, and survivors are treated extraordinarily badly. It was far, far worse than I had anticipated. So it’s fantastic to feel that we have been able to show that there is a better way, a way that actually listens to women and aims to support their long term recovery, not just “manage risk”, which is fine (well, fine-ish) as a goal for agencies, but nowhere near enough for women. But the most personally satisfying, in a purely selfish way, is that I’ve learned so much, and I’m still learning every day.
Will the Women’s Equality Party make a difference for survivors of domestic abuse?
It’s early days yet, but I think the WEP has already made a real difference in that the very fact that it’s needed has highlighted how serious the impacts of women’s inequality are – I think it’s made a lot of people sit up and take notice. I spoke at the Party Conference recently and there was an obvious buzz: a great atmosphere from a huge group of very varied women sharing ideas and feeing a genuine sense that they were part of the decision-making of something really new. I would really like the WEP to focus on issues where it can make the most difference: some of the major policy areas where we don’t yet have a sense of what a women-centred policy would look like. What would economic policy look like, for example, if it was focused on alleviating women’s disadvantage? What would the NHS look like if health policy and medicine were truly meeting women’s needs. What about housing? That would look radically different, that’s for sure.
Have you seen a change in the types of abuse reported over your time in office? Do you think women are finding it easier to speak out about domestic abuse, particularly after success of campaigns like Everyday Sexism etc.?
Yes, I do think more women are speaking out, and the evidence backs this up in terms of numbers of calls to the police. Of course that should mean that more effort is made to ensure support is available for them. I think in many ways feminism is enjoying a resurgence among younger women and that is fantastic. It’s definitely more acceptable for my 18 year old daughter to declare herself unapologetically as a feminist, among her peers, than it was when I was that age. But there is also a backlash against that, which is very dangerous. And, as always, the force of the backlash is out of all proportion to the realities of feminism’s advances: it is very frightening and violent.
In terms of new or different types of abuse, I’ve been at Women’s Aid less than four years, so I’m probably not in a position to say. Perpetrators are undoubtedly using digital and online tools to coerce, control and abuse women, more and more. That presents new challenges in terms of evidence-gathering, but it’s also important to remember that this is the same old abuse, just different means – perpetrators will use whatever they can, there is nothing they won’t do.
Locally the organisations do involve/ employ men but at Board level it’s exclusively women. Why is that? Is it a deliberate policy?
Many of our local organisations employ men, to work with male victims, boys whose mothers are survivors, and perpetrators. Our National Service Standards specify that organisations should be led by women, and we define that as the CEO and Chair of the Board being women. At Women’s Aid at national level, we don’t work with men as beneficiaries or service users, so we don’t have a specific need to employ men. Our staff team and Board are all women.
It’s important for us to show that women can advocate for their own needs, represent themselves at the highest levels, and do so with a greater level of understanding of women’s experiences – without the need for the approval or validation of a man. We are not just a service for women, we are representing women – both survivors and the women who have established and fought for local services. There are also practical reasons: anyone on our team might need to go into a women-only service at some point, and we can’t employ anyone who would not be able to do that.
I’m often asked whether a man could do my job, and the answer is absolutely no. Just as I couldn’t do the job of running a Black women’s organisation.
If you could change or introduce a piece of legislation to improve the lives of women, what would it be?
This goes back a bit to what I was saying about the Women’s Equality Party: “Violence against women is already illegal, yet men still get away with it. The answer to that lies partly in better enforcement of the existing laws, but mainly in cultural change. I would like to see other police forces follow Nottinghamshire’s lead in classifying misogynist abuse as a hate crime. I would like to see the government finally agree to make education on healthy relationships, including consent, compulsory in all schools. There are ways in which legislators can promote the cultural change that we need. But legislation is not the whole story.
Polly, what do you think is your best achievement to date?
That’s very hard to answer. I guess you mean an achievement in my working life? We have had some great successes through our campaigning at Women’s Aid, and I’m proud of those. But I think what I feel is the biggest achievement is a more general thing, which is that I think I have made Women’s Aid stronger and more impactful as an organisation. But I feel nervous saying that, even though I’m not remotely a suspicious person – these are fragile times and you just never know what’s around the corner!
Finally, Polly, if you could have a gift of one book accompanied by dinner with the author, what would it be and why?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because she’s definitely the person in public life that I’ve been happiest to hear from and about this year.
Many thanks, Polly, for your time and inspiration. Long may the work of Women’s Aid continue!
If you’d like to know more about Women’s Aid this link will take you through to their website
Posted on December 20th, 2016 by Jane