Embracing Equity – Victoria

For International Women’s Day (IWD) , a day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the globe, we spoke with some of SIG’s women about what this year’s theme #EmbraceEquity means to them.

In the first of a series of interviews, we feature an interview with Victoria Sweetman, Head of Service.

Interview with Victoria 

SIG’s Head of Service, Victoria Sweetman, sat down to speak with me for International Women’s Day. We talked about her journey to empowerment and what embracing equity means to her.

“Within SIG, I’ve felt particularly empowered because I was really lucky to have the same line manager for nearly ten years. He championed what I was trying to do in supporting women, not just myself in working within leadership but across the organisation. Whether through the Participants and Residents we meet and the complexities they have to endure or colleagues understanding that having women around the table and having that equity within the voices that we hear is vitally important. I am lucky in that respect. I’ve had the support around me to keep my resilience at a high.”

For Victoria, SIG helps her to embrace equity because it has women in leadership positions. She said: “I think it’s good that the women within the organisation see that there isn’t a glass ceiling, that we can achieve things, and that we have inspirational women at all levels of leadership and partnership. I think it is partly the sector we work in where there is a predominance of women but also the attitudes around the table.”

Victoria thinks that she has struggled externally, especially when working with the most complex of clients. Where the feeling is that some of what they endure is a lifestyle choice. She has had to challenge more in the partners she works with than when she worked on the ‘frontline.’ Having worked her way up, she has seen more now and more change that is needed.

By contrast, SIG is very good at being inclusive and open to being challenged professionally. So, there are times when Victoria might be looking at a particular policy or looking at something that happened in a service where she feels fully able to challenge that as a woman, speaking on behalf of other women or even those who identify as women to be able to make that change happen.

Her drive to champion women has come from multiple places. “I was incredibly lucky to have a particularly strong-willed grandmother, my mum’s mum. Who was very much, ‘go and make your life what you want.’ My parents ran pubs and hotels, so I grew up around adults who were very much championing and telling their own stories and giving almost life lessons to me from a really early age. So, I grew up quite confident.

But as an 18-year-old, I was in a Domestic Violence (DV) relationship for quite a long time, and I ended up in a refuge for a short period of time. I came out wanting to change how men are supported as perpetrators. Then eventually, I came to the other side, having opened The House – a home for women who were sexually exploited in the on-street sex trade, which has sadly closed – and seeing women that had gone through such horrific trauma and circumstances and how they were perceived. Women who were sexually exploited were seen as prostitutes and sex workers, and their identity taken away. That really sparked the passion in me where I wanted to dispel the myth as a lifestyle choice and that band-of-gold mentality that really is not there and see it for what it really is; sexual exploitation, sexual assault, at best, without all of the other horrific experiences they go through.

Everything for the victims becomes transactional. Even the way we talk about services. How do we sell them? We have to do more work on people seeing the real truth of people’s lives. And if it makes those people uncomfortable, I think people have to sit with that and look at their own understanding and do their own work. But I try to work in a way that’s non-threatening to help people learn and help try to change that mindset because I think going in, I could be the SIG feminist and pulled out whenever it’s needed, but I don’t think that’s particularly helpful, and it doesn’t support bringing people around the table. Because looking at us as a feminist organisation, people don’t always see that word as what it is – about equity. It’s given a negative connotation. But feminism does not take away from men. It just supports us to all sit around the table and be able to do things together in a fair and equal way.”

Victoria feels lucky that she is well respected externally, where people do listen to her opinion and her thoughts on systems change and breaking the inequalities for women. Not just those that are Participants and Residents within the various systems but also employees. She has alongside colleagues advocated for services to have women’s leads externally. And has helped to create forums and groups and also challenged the system on funding for women’s services and the inequities around that.

She believes there is still some way to go but has seen significant change with having female victim commissioners nationally, which helps. There have been various pilot schemes, and things like having misogyny labelled as a hate crime with the police has made a significant difference. Collaborating with local community partnerships and police has made a big difference, especially in places like Luton and Brighton, where Victoria and other colleagues externally have created Luton Against Sexual Exploitation and invited the police to be around the table. They create community workshops for members of the public to help change their perceptions. Also, in Brighton, the team have worked extremely hard and come to a place where they are able to share intelligence with local police and build the understanding of trauma-informed working. Now they are piloting a scheme where they will be able to give some level of community orders to those who are stalking, harassing, exploiting, and taking advantage of vulnerable women.

SIG has had support on the governmental level in Luton, because the MP was championing that group of women and was part of the Luton Against Sexual Exploitation. Victoria thinks it would be good to partner within that arena and do more work with the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), where they have the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) leads and work with the victim commissioner.

Victoria sees everything she does as intertwined. She tries to work in the most congruent and authentic way possible. But her core values are around championing people, celebrating differences, and taking the time, if she feels uncomfortable, to really reflect and look at herself before she challenges others. She recognizes that she still has more to learn and that we need the voices of lived experience at all levels to be able to change things. She knows that allies are needed and has known organisations that are predominantly male, that have female leads, that are doing great work. We do need healthy male influence and advocacy. We need that partnership. We need men to be able to call things out, as we can’t be in every forum or situation. And we have to trust our allies.

“I think it’s really important for women to lift other women up. We get caught up in a society that says that blowing out somebody else’s candle makes ours shine brighter, but it really doesn’t. I think just buck that trend and understand that your vibe is your tribe. Have people around you that make you feel good. That lifts you up, and that brings something to your world that is meaningful and makes you feel good about yourself. But also pay that forward and do that for somebody else. I think it’s really important to recognize the strength in other women and to lift them up because we don’t always have the confidence to speak. Imposter syndrome is very real, and I suffer massively from it at times, but I have the benefit of colleagues and friends that know me very well and who will step in and almost tag team when needed, and that’s really, really important. Women can be brutal to other women. The way we are brought up, competition is seen as a positive thing, and I don’t think it is a negative, but I think it is how we compete, how we’re pitted against each other, and how we can pick ourselves back up afterward. We are doing this all the while society is telling us we have to bear children, get married, look great, not go above a certain size…and do all of that and hold down a job because ‘you’re a powerhouse!’ And it is a lot to do, and it’s achievable, but…look at Jacinda Ardern. She recently admitted that she could not do it all. And she owned that. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it should not be a headline.

I’d like to think I pave my own equity. I think that, on the whole, I am lucky to be able to say that I have an equal footing in my career and in my personal life. I am not going to say that I didn’t have to push for that when I was younger. Things are changing, and it’s sad that outside Health and Social Care, we see on social media that we’re going backwards a little bit in terms of feminism. But there are enough people around the table and in the conversations to be able to continue to make change happen. It will just be in another iteration. But I have the courage, confidence, and bravery to put myself out there to challenge. Not everybody can, so I would just encourage people to have allies around them.

SIG’s very good at celebrating the differences between people. I just think that sometimes, women can be seen as the exception to the rule. But it’s not that. We have to make the work that we do meet everybody’s needs.

SIG’s women need to know there are champions within SIG and also outside so that if they do need help with or feel that things aren’t equitable for them that they can sense check with other people and have them support them in making that happen. I have been described as passionate and not in a positive way. I can be loud, but everybody deserves their space. However big, however small, they deserve that space and that voice, and that equity. I embrace equity!”