Uttlesford District Council boss on why she wouldn't call herself a feminist

PUBLISHED: 12:29 08 March 2019 | UPDATED: 12:29 08 March 2019

Leader of UDC, councillor Howard Rolfe beside chief executive Dawn French

Leader of UDC, councillor Howard Rolfe beside chief executive Dawn French

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Uttlesford District Council (UDC) boss Dawn French has explained why she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, in an interview to mark International Women’s Day today

UDC chief executive Dawn French.UDC chief executive Dawn French.

Miss French spoke to the Broadcast about her rise from environmental health officer to chief executive, her female role-models and the challenges Uttlesford is facing.

Chief among those challenges, Miss French said, was the difficulty for young people finding a home.

“Young people have huge difficulty affording to get on to the house market and affording to rent property in the district,” said Miss French.

She added: “If that forces them to move away, particularly in the smaller villages, you end up with lots of people whose family have grown up and moved away. Then the school might close or other facilities might close and then you find the village fabric starting to break down.”

Miss French was initially inspired to pursue a career in environment health after an environmental health officer visited her school in her formative years.

After landing a role in the department, she stayed in the post for a number of years and recalls once finding half a mouse in a Mars bar. Reassuringly, the chocolate bar in question was not discovered in Uttlesford.

Now, having been chief executive at UDC for three years, Miss French says she doesn’t know when she will pass the baton on.

“My career has never been straight forward,” she said. “A very personal incident happened to me in that a friend and colleague was the subject of a domestic abuse incident in which she actually died. She was murdered by her partner, and that causes you to stop short and think about where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

Reflecting on whether her experiences had been different to a man’s during her career, Miss French said: “I can honestly say that I have never felt I have been discriminated against, that whenever I have gone forward for a promotion I have felt that it has genuinely been awarded or not, on merit.

“But I know that is not the same for lots of other friends who work in other sectors. So I have been lucky. On the other hand, we shouldn’t feel lucky not to have been discriminated against. Why should we feel lucky? But that’s the language we tend to use.”

When asked if she would call herself a feminist, Miss French said: “I probably wouldn’t, proactively. Partly because I think that terms means so many things to so many people. I think we should be advocating for the rights and responsibilities and the advantage and the opportunity for everybody.”

She added: “I think if you say you’re a feminist, will people interpret that to the exclusion of some of those other agendas? The more we talk about embracing diversity, reducing discrimination, hopefully eliminating it, making sure people, all people, have the opportunity to grow, then within that you will also always be advocating for women to access the opportunities that everybody else does. So I just think it is a bit of a pigeon-hole term.

“Some of the best advice I have had since being a chief executive, some of the best support has come from male colleagues. So we talk about men and women but we have male traits and female traits and some females have male traits and of course some males have female traits. He [the colleague who gave her advice] was not what you might describe as a macho big figure wanting to make a big impact in some way on his organisation. He was a much more sensitive person who operated much more through influence and when I talked to him about my first few months as being a chief executive he gave me some really wise words, but that was because his style was more akin to my style. A woman who had a huge amount of impact, with a direct, loud, presence might have given me completely different words of advice, but that isn’t my style.”

Miss French said her mother has been a “fantastic” role-model and there were “undoubtedly” still barriers for women in the workplace, adding “Why are we still talking about equal pay and gender pay-gaps? Why are we still talking about getting women into engineering? Because they are so under-represented.”

You can listen to Miss French’s full interview on Unpacking Uttlesford, a podcast series run by the Dunmow Broadcast and Saffron Walden Reporter.

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