International Women's Day 2018

by Louise Thomason -

Maggie Sandison, appointed last week as Shetland Islands Council's first female chief executive, is one of an increasing number of women in a leading managerial role in Shetland.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, we spoke to several successful local women about their working lives in Shetland, which women have inspired them and what advice they have for a successful career.

Anne Black, Chief Executive, Shetland Charitable Trust

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why?

  • Nessie Robertson, Assistant Head Teacher of the AHS. She was an inspirational history teacher and mentor. She encouraged everyone to realise their full potential and certainly was instrumental in my choice to study history at University of Glasgow.
  • Professor Anne Crowther, Head of the Economic and Social History Department at University of Glasgow. Like Nessie, Professor Crowther was extremely hard working, and was held in high esteem by students and academic colleagues. She encouraged me to continue to do a doctorate, although a hard task master, it was an absolute privilege to complete a PhD under her supervision.
  • Sandra Laurenson, retired Chief Executive of NHS Shetland. She was an exceptional leader with incredible integrity and professionalism.

How has living in Shetland affected your working life?

After completing my PhD I was offered two research posts, one at University of Stirling and another at University of Glasgow. I declined both posts to return to Shetland to live. As a result my career has been shaped by the opportunity available within Shetland.

This can be viewed in two ways, yes it may be a limited market place, but working within smaller organisations has provided me with a breadth of experience. I also gained a great deal of wider experience during my time as Chief Executive of Shetland Enterprise and working as part of the HIE network.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career and looking to succeed?

Work hard, always operate with integrity and a strong value set. Believe in yourself as anything is possible!!

Valerie Nicolson, Head Teacher, Anderson High School

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why?

Growing up in Shetland, I was lucky to know a lot of women who were strong, determined and never felt disadvantaged. Close friends, family, and neighbours worked hard, achieved through perseverance, talent and merit, and used a lot of common sense. It’s impossible to pick one.

How has living in Shetland affected your working life?

I’ve often said that having a Shetland education is one of the lightest things you can carry with you in life – you’re well equipped to face a challenge; when you work south, folk are interested in where you come from; folk respect your island upbringing and it makes you memorable. Coming home to work here reminds you how closely linked we all are in Shetland. Our neighbours could be our friends, our pupils, our parents or our colleagues. We have to take care in how we look after each other.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career and looking to succeed?

Have a go. Don’t be shy. Folk are often delighted when you’ve volunteered, phoned, asked a question, put yourself forward, helped. Don’t think it’s not for you, or that you’re too young or inexperienced. And smile – it makes a difference not just to others who see it, but to how you feel inside.

Rachel Hunter, Area Manager, Shetland; Highlands and Islands Enterprise

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why?

The women that inspire me are many and varied but what they have in common is that they have pushed the boundaries on how society “expects” women to behave, look, work or lead.

How has living in Shetland affected your working life?

Working in Shetland has been a positive experience for me as I have managed to climb the career ladder within my organisation and rise through the ranks from a development officer to an Executive member of staff. My employer is committed to creating a family friendly, flexible working environment which has been vital to my progression over the years as I have juggled work and family life.

In terms of the wider economy in Shetland, what concerns me most in relation to women is that “occupational segregation” is still a significant issue here. What I mean by “occupational segregation” is the clustering of men and women in certain types of job (horizontal segregation) or certain grades (vertical segregation: the “glass ceiling”). Both horizontal and vertical occupational segregation exist within Shetland’s workplaces and economy. Understanding and addressing occupational segregation is important as gendered patterns of employment result in underutilisation of men’s and women’s skills in the workforce, acting as a drag on economic growth. OECD research indicates that equalising labour force participation rates of men and women in the UK could increase GDP by 10 per cent by 2030.

So, as you can see, this is not a “feminist” issue, it’s an economic one. Occupational segregation is holding back our businesses and economy. Tackling this issue is not easy as it requires changing attitudes and actions at every area in society – within the family, the education sector, the workplace and at political level. Great strides have been made in addressing this issue - in Shetland we see more and more women in senior and well paid jobs in engineering, energy, aquaculture and in some of the construction trades. However, Shetland is famous for its fishing fleet and I wonder when will we break that last taboo of finally seeing a fisherwoman crew or even skipper a pelagic or whitefish boat?

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career and looking to succeed?

Happiness is not a job title. Don’t become so focussed on your career that everything else in your life suffers, which more often than not can include your health, your friends and family. Keep your work and life in balance.

Carole Laignel, Inshore Co-ordinator, Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why?

Although I never met her, my great grandmother has always been an inspiration to me. She came from Orkney to teach in Unst in 1898 and ended up becoming head teacher. I think back then it must have been quite an adventure and teaching then was not like it is now as she had to teach everything from the obvious English and arithmetic to French, maths, gardening and cooking. I think she must have been a remarkable woman.

How has living in Shetland affected your working life?

I guess there are fewer opportunities in some ways, but Shetland has been good to me. I have been lucky to have two very interesting and demanding jobs (I was previously deputy airport manager) and have enjoyed the challenge of both. Both jobs have required a certain amount of travel to meetings and this can also be challenging at times.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career and looking to succeed?

I would say that besides the obvious working hard and being honest that good communication skills are generally very important in all workplaces and beyond.

Maggie Sandison, Chief Executive, Shetland Islands Council

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why?

When I was at junior school we studied Boudica who led the revolt against the invading Romans. I grew up in Kent, which was the first area to be occupied by the Romans and there is lots of evidence of their presence in the landscape - the straight Roman roads and the place names.

I was fascinated by how a woman, in that time, could bring together warring tribes to fight a common enemy together. Creating a shared vision and having the passion and the confidence that meant people wanted to followed her. I don’t like being so generalist about gender normally, because we all have different skills and capabilities that are valuable at work if you are given the right environment to succeed, but as its International Women’s Day I will risk it today! Women have the ability to be highly collaborative and are often the glue that hold teams together, we also have the determination to keep going despite barriers and set backs if we think the battle is worth it!

How has living in Shetland affected your working life?

I have always worked in local government since I left university. I am proud to be a public servant in local government because I believe it is the part of government that has most direct impact - we provide many of the services and amenities that are essential to our daily lives: transport, education, housing, social care, snow clearance, road maintenance, and waste management. When I moved to Shetland, the role of the council in supporting the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community feels even greater than where I lived on the mainland, so you can see your own personal impact and that of your hard working colleagues every day.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career and looking to succeed?

If you want an interesting career with variety, opportunity and challenge - go into local government. Take up development and training opportunities and practice reflection and self-improvement when given feedback. Build a support network to help you with problem solving and build personal resilience; take on any project you can to develop your skills and keep applying for your managers job when it comes up if you think you can do it!