Delighted to be interviewed by Fiona for Womanthology – a completely wicked stealth-feminist blog. My interview came in a series around economics during World Economic Forum at Davos 2016.
Full interview available here or read it below:
Polly Trenow is a campaigner on gender, economics and education who has worked in women’s rights and gender equality since 2005. She is a freelance campaigner on gender equality working with schools, local government and charities and she currently holds several different roles, including sitting on the Management Committee of the Women’s Budget Group and working as Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society. Last November, Polly became the 2016 Esmée Fairbairn Gender Equality Fellow on the Clore Social Leadership Programme.
“…We’ve…got to change the cultural pressures on men, for whom it’s often still seen as unacceptable to take time off to care. Gender stereotyping works both ways so men are disadvantaged too, and that’s something else that we need to challenge…”
Getting interested in working at the interface between gender and economics and saving the world
I think it was my degree. I studied Social Anthropology and as part of that I did a module on Gender and Trade. That was looking at how societies organise their economies, and what importance they place, if any, about what gender you are when you’re trading. I didn’t realise at the time how interesting I thought it was, but then when I left university I decided: “I want to save the world!” It seemed obvious that I should try and improve women’s equality, so that’s what I went for.
I started off volunteering in the women’s sector, working for a variety of different international development charities and UK charities. I became a trustee of a Zimbabwe women’s organisation (and I hadn’t even been to Zimbabwe!). I felt really at home and I loved what I was doing, and the people I was working with.
I then get my first job working in the Women’s National Commission, which was a quango – a quasi non-governmental equality organisation – and that was fascinating because we were based within the Civil Service, but we were theoretically independent. I got my first understanding of the challenges of talking to people in positions of power and how to manage what you’re saying to them.
No compromising: Making change from the outside shouting in
I had this great boss when I was doing one of my internships – a proper old-school feminist, who said to me: “Polly. There are two ways to make change. You’re either on the inside, or you’re on the outside shouting in. If you’re on the outside shouting in you don’t really have to compromise what you say, but if you’re on the inside you do.” So I thought, “I don’t want to compromise what I say! So rather than doing something like being in the Civil Service or being a Government adviser, I’m going to stick to charities and campaigning.”
So I worked for a variety of different women’s organisations. Lots of them were membership or network based where I got a real appreciation of the power in numbers, and also the importance of engaging members who have so much to give, but who maybe need some guidance to know how they can help or what they can do.
Ultimately the women’s sector is quite small, quite underfunded, and after about five or six years I was quite exhausted from low paid jobs and I didn’t really know where I was going, so I took a career break, which I though was just going to be a year, but it ended up being three years. I did something completely different with my life. I went to America and sang in a band!
I eventually thought I’d had enough of a break. I really missed the women’s sector and I felt I needed to do something a bit differently. I wasn’t that healthy or happy in the women’s sector before, so I decided to develop a freelance career, and I was lucky enough to get a part time job as a Policy Officer at Maternity Action and then at The Fawcett Society, which left me over half my week to do my freelance work, which I’ve been doing for about four years now.
The work of the Women’s Budget Group
I’ve been involved in the Women’s Budget Group for ages. I started off as their coordinator way back in 2008, and then whilst I was in America I was on the policy advisory group because it was a writing and research role, so I was able to do it long-distance. When I got back to the UK I joined the Management Committee, and I’ve been on it ever since.
The Women’s Budget Group is about analysing economic policy and saying: “What impact is this going to have on men and women, and how equal they are?” We have lots of academics who are there to crunch the numbers and to get into the nitty gritty. I’m not an academic, I’m an activist, but I suppose I see my role in the Women’s Budget Group as trying to communicate all of this vital, interesting academic work in a way that is going to engage the public.
At the moment I’m running a series of workshops across the country – so in Bristol in the South West, in East Anglia, in Manchester and in Glasgow. We’re bringing together feminists, because in the last few years we’ve seen a real resurgence in feminism, with lots of new feminist groups starting up and it’s really exciting, but a lot of those people are campaigning on things like sexual harassment or page three, and not really entering the economic sphere.