Liverpool trailblazer: Maggie O'Carroll, The Women's Organisation

What does it take to drive forward an organisation that is a hub of female empowerment, dedicated to developing the confidence and skills of aspiring women in business?

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Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive of The Women’s Organisation in Liverpool, shares some of her thoughts on the importance of role models, making ourselves heard and more:

Over your life and career, what have been your biggest achievements and challenges?

As a student, the years I spent in the U.S had a profound impact on me. It helped open my horizons on entrepreneurial ambition, the size, scale and diversity of opportunities for women and the needs for highly visible role models. The notion I brought back to Liverpool from the U.S. was that more women should be supported to start their own business in the U.K. It seemed odd to me that the national and local government hadn’t recognised the huge untapped employment and economic development opportunities that existed if women took the leap into starting and growing their own businesses. My plan was to set up a social business supporting women to take the leap into business. In the beginning we faced the usual challenges and questions, “where is the men’s organisation?” Our response was, and still is; look all around you. Business support services were designed by, delivered by and marketed to men and perhaps this was unintentional but nevertheless enterprise was a man’s game and to some extent still is today. On a positive note, my biggest achievement is that The Women’s Organisation has grown into the largest female-focussed enterprise support agency in the UK helping women across Europe, China and Africa. I’m pleased that over the years we have contributed to a marked improvement in women starting and growing their own businesses in the U.K.

The Women’s Organisation was established in 1996. How has the organisation changed over time and how has it made a difference to women, locally?

Developing the economic status of women has always been our core mission, but as the needs of women have changed, so too have the services that we deliver. Since the inception of The Women’s Organisation, we have supported thousands of women to become economically active, participate in training and education and start their own enterprises. Starting a business can be daunting for anyone, and through quality advice and training, we’re able to ease the process. Over time, we realised that some women didn’t have the confidence to even envision being an entrepreneur, which is why we began delivering personal development programmes. Confidence-building programmes give women the time and space to begin believing in the possibilities and lay the foundations for a brighter future.

What do you think still needs to change and what will you be campaigning for?

I think we need to honour the brave and historic women who went before us, but also to remember that the fight for gender equality still exists today. We’ve come a long way, but there is still more to be done. Despite the steps taken to get more women into senior positions, the progress is still terribly slow and the glass ceiling firmly intact. Ultimately, women are highly outnumbered in leadership roles and today, we simply can’t accept this as the status quo. I’ve always believed that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and this is why shining a spotlight on positive role models is critical to getting more women in places where they’re not currently present. Young women need to look at panels, board rooms, local councils and so on, and know that these positions are perfectly achievable to aspire to. To do that, we have to shout about the successes of the pioneering women who are leading the charge in their own respective fields today and hope that this will inspire other women to know that they too can succeed.

Do you have a female role model or hero?

Mary Robinson, who served as the first female President of Ireland during 1990-1997, and grew up in the same county as me back in Ireland. On being elected Ireland's first woman president in 1990, Mary famously said: "I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system”. As president of Ireland she was an agent of change for women, advocating the legalisation of using contraceptives, removing the prohibition of divorce and for women to be able to continue work in the civil service after they married. Mary was revolutionary for the 90s feminist movement, demonstrating the tenacity, willingness and desire to make real change.

Do you have any advice for young women in the city today?

The sky’s the limit. Find what it is you want to do and work towards being the best you can be at it. Liverpool is a fantastic city to make a career for yourself in and the opportunities are endless. Get out there and make yourself heard.