Embrace Equity - International Women's Day

Published: 08 March 2023

Wednesday 8 March 2023 is International Women’s Day and we asked Ruth Leonard, our Head of Volunteering Development and Operations and recently published author of a book on Volunteer Management to share her reflections on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Embrace Equity’.


Ruth volunteering at a Macmillan street collection
Ruth (middle) volunteering at a Macmillan street collection

Volunteering has enabled me to develop as a woman facing societal challenges and #EmbraceEquity

Ruth's story

I was asked to write my thoughts on the power of volunteering as it relates to International Women’s Day and decided to take that challenge to share from a personal perspective where volunteering has enabled me to develop as a woman facing societal challenges and #EmbraceEquity.

I have always loved the quote attributed to Margaret Mead “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” This is volunteering. And Volunteer Managers are those who develop the light, flexible structure that enables this.

My career started when I left school with no qualifications to speak of and the dream of being a writer. I left home as soon as I could, moved to Cardiff and was lucky to be offered a full-time volunteering role by CSV (Community Service Volunteers) – now known as Volunteering Matters.  It was a great opportunity which really built my self-esteem - a young woman who felt she had little value - and my task was to help older women who hadn’t had the ability to learn about using computers to get job-ready.

Young woman wearing a hat and sunglasses standing by a washing line.

I learnt so much from these women, on a personal level and in terms of leadership and coaching theory. I wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms then, but it really sowed the seeds of working with others and enabling people to bring and use their own strengths to develop genuine, meaningful solutions – which is the essential basis for involving volunteers.

It was a great start, but I wanted more. So I sourced a volunteering opportunity which I thought would help me towards my dream of being a writer - editorial assistant in a monthly Cardiff entertainment magazine. Very exciting – previews of films, interviewing Tom Jones, chasing copy, re-writing copy, reviewing bands, selling advertising space and most excitingly of all (yes more exciting than Tom Jones!) interviewing Erica Jong, the famous feminist author of ‘Fear of Flying’. I was just past the first trimester of pregnancy at the time and she was so supportive about the magic of motherhood – how stretching it was “in more ways than one” as she said.

The skills I gained from this role enabled me to get my first full time job from the skills volunteering at the magazine had given me – proof-reading our client’s recruitment advertising copy. A week in I was called in to be asked if I was pregnant (I’d not told them and in fact had been wearing frilly collars to distract any attention throughout that time). When I admitted I was, they said they’d keep me on until I was six months pregnant but then I’d need to leave and would I train up my successor. They did say they were very sorry, but they had no choice.

When I admitted I was pregnant, they said I’d need to leave

As a young mum, I received some amazing support from two charities, Women’s Aid and Gingerbread. There was also plenty of support from other women in the local community, who would swap items, tips, jokes and (during more challenging times) details of refuges. The headspace this granted me enabled me to do an access course and go to university. I studied one day a week for two years and came out with a distinction in developmental psychology (having done some interesting studies on ‘language acquisition’ using my one year old as the subject!) and also a distinction in Women’s Studies. This helped to refine some of my thoughts about the power of social action – which I now recognise along with citizen participation are forms of volunteering.

From here it was to University of Cardiff and University of Glamorgan. Taking my 6 year old to my graduation ceremony was one of my proudest moments – so an English and Philosophy degree might not land me in riches but I had proven I had a brain and could use it even when the going was hard.

Not only did it not land me in riches, but I couldn’t even get a job. So I came back to London and we moved back in with my parents whilst I completed a certificate in journalism, volunteered in the press team of a UK-wide charity and also volunteered as an editorial assistant with a feminist magazine to get experience for my big break into journalism. All good experience, but I couldn’t have predicted the next stage of my career – which was to be successful for a job in the volunteering team of the charity I was at.

This was a huge moment for me. All of things I wanted to be a journalist for – making the world a better place, addressing issues of social justice, bringing different ideas and people together, enabling the community to make a difference - I could see being achieved through enabling volunteering. I developed policy and processes to support and enable effective volunteering. I established befriender schemes and supported individuals to volunteer on children’s holiday camps. It was there that I realised that the trait of kindness which I had tried to hide in myself for being too weak and ‘girly’ was actually my great strength.

The trait of kindness which I had tried to hide in myself for being too weak and ‘girly’ was actually my great strength

My next role was with Samaritans – an organisation I had great affinity with since difficult teenage years. Here was where the real force of genuinely involving volunteers to co-develop solutions really took off, and I have never looked back. This is what I loved – the diverse thinking and innovation, the challenging conversations and the passion that people giving time bring all led to creating new opportunities. Another moment of pride was enabling the recognition of Volunteer Manager roles which supported the listening role as being equally respected within the organisation and captured within the organisation’s strategy. 

Throughout the years, I have continued to volunteer - as a Samaritans listening volunteer, a community mediator, trustee with prisoners’ family and friends service, a compassionate neighbour with my local hospice, member of Rushey Green Timebank and currently as the Chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM). All of these roles have demonstrated the breadth of involvement and the strength of people coming together, often in difficult situations with widely different backgrounds and views but all with the openness to work together on a common cause.

And I have achieved my dream of being a writer. My recently published, co-authored book on Involving Volunteers speaks to the theme of volunteering being an integral demonstration of humanity, taking place across the centuries and the globe and representing everything which is important – including that which is attempting to change laws.

Ruth with her book
Ruth with her book 'Volunteer Involvement: An Introduction to Theory and Practice'

On International Women’s Day it's worth remembering that women fighting for change in the status quo have done so both as volunteers and through involving volunteers. The District Organisers for the Suffragettes were Volunteer Managers, recruiting volunteers for large militant events, and many household named charities have been started by women. As Emily Wilkinson, founder of the RSPB stated “women are very ready to give to a good cause when they are shown the way” – this charity was founded specifically by a group of women frustrated that their campaign against the use of feathers in the fashion industry because it was causing extinction was not taken seriously by the all male British Ornithological Union.

On this day of embracing equity, as we support, empower and show up to fight discrimination against women let’s also ensure we are clear that this is for all women and recognise the struggle faced within the trans community and the power of those volunteering to change this oppression.  

I am continuing to write – working on my novel started when my father died of mesothelioma. It’s the hidden voices of Bermondsey; mainly women, fighting against the odds but coming together as a unified whole.

Women fighting for change in the status quo have done so both as volunteers and through involving volunteers