Inspirational Woman: Stella Sutcliffe | Diversity & Inclusion Leader, WiHTL & Founder, GoTitleFree™

Stella

Stella Sutcliffe is the Founder of GoTitleFree™and the Diversity and Inclusion Leader for membership organisation WiHTL and Diversity in Retail having been a DE&I consultant for six years.

Stella is a specialist in gender and inclusion and has made it her mission to achieve freedom of gender identity and marital status titles for all areas of society.

GoTitleFree™ exists to challenge and facilitate all organisations to stop requesting, and using, name prefixes (i.e. ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’, ‘Ms’, or ‘Mx’) when onboarding and communicating with the public, their customers and their employees.

Stella has multi-sector experience, having worked across education, charity, town planning and urban regeneration, engineering, banking and finance, universities and local and central government departments.

She’s undertaken extensive research on the subject of marital status titles, interviewing 2000 individuals.  She reports the following findings:

  • 94% of non-binary individuals interviewed said that the request for marital status titles made them feel frustrated ‘every time’.
  • 71% of divorced women said they did not know what title to select when separated from their husbands, and that they wished they could bypass the question.
  • 71% of individuals said they would be put off buying a product or service if they were addressed incorrectly.

Stella is active in several networks with a focus on gender and inclusion: Institute for Equality and Diversity Practitioners, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in STEMM and Diversity & Inclusion Leadership and Disruptors for Equality.  In terms of core expertise, she specialises in Gender Equality; Gender Inclusive Language; Unconscious Bias/Implicit Bias; Direct and Indirect Discrimination; Women Returner Programmes; Flexible working best practices; Family Friendly Policy best practices.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in Salford, which is quite fashionable now, but it was pretty grim in the 1980s!

I still call myself a Northerner even though I’ve been ‘down South’ for longer than I lived in the North. Luckily my whole family still live in the North West, so I get to visit often with my two daughters, and still call Manchester ‘home’ with authenticity!

Career-wise, I am so lucky to wear two fabulous professional hats.

One is my ‘day job’, where I’m the Diversity and Inclusion Leader for a Collaboration Community of employers in the hospitality, travel, leisure and retail sectors. I create and deliver events, resources and training programmes for the largest employers in those sectors.

The other is GoTitleFree™, my gender identity equality campaign which I launched nearly five years ago now after starting to question the way I was addressed in letters addressed to me and my husband.

I realised that many other women were also frustrated with the way businesses frequently make mistakes and assumptions about women because of marital status titles (‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms) – and that organisations who demand this information are very often gathering a piece of data on a woman that they can’t possibly gather on a man.

My research revealed that marital status titles are not even a part of a person’s legal identity, so there is no reason for businesses to make the request. The insistence on selecting a title causes irritation to hundreds of thousands of women who are divorced and women whose spouse has died. Men don’t experience this or have to suffer explaining themselves and their identity.

I also strongly believed that in a world where millions of people are now openly stating their pronouns, there is no place for the continued demand for titles, which denote gender too.

The most recent census revealed that 260,000 people in England and Wales do not have the same gender identity they were assigned at birth, and so titles are also a big problem for trans and non-binary individuals.

Since 2018, I’ve surveyed and interviewed nearly 2000 people on the subject of marital status titles and celebrated the many organisations that are allowing people to be referred to on a ‘first name/surname’ basis.

It’s been a heck of a journey, and it’s not a fight I expect to win anytime soon. There are a lot of hearts and minds to change!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I give myself sort of ‘annual reviews’, where I assess what I’m happy with… and what I’m not!

I don’t have a rule about the particular time of year, but I definitely do love a New Year’s Resolution.

If I’m not getting a good vibe from anything or anyone in my life, I start to put wheels in motion to change that situation.

If anyone was to look at my career path, they’d probably look at my first job, and the one I’m doing now, and think, “How the hell did you get from there, to where you are now?!”, but there’s always been a link. There’s always been a route created from one great opportunity to the next.

There have sometimes difficult crossroads, where I’ve had to choose a better job over better money or decide between a commercial role and a role which is impactful in different ways.

I haven’t always made the right choices either, but I’ve built a moral code over time, which has been forged by the times I’ve gone ‘off piste’.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Oh yes! – Self-doubt and incredible imposter syndrome. Discrimination based on:

  • My accent (Mancunian!)
  • My gender
  • My lack of funds to buy smart suits when I first started out in the corporate world.

I worked for the Daily Express in the early 2000s and I recall my male boss beckoning a female colleague over. He pointed at her clothes and told her to help me choose where to shop. He basically wanted me to start buying work wear that was more like hers, (which was different every day, and much more expensive than mine).

My confidence was a lot lower then and I remembered laughing it off. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to be insulted.

I’ve had horrible bosses (male and female), and horrendous people to manage.

But for every narcissistic person, there are five who are ready to pull you out of a hole. For every nightmare person, there’s a true delight right next to them who makes working a total joy!

I’ve learned a lot from each job and each person and feel fortunate enough to say I have zero regrets.

There are managers who were great role models, and who showed me how to manage. Senior leaders who took chances on me and supported me through life lessons and hardships as well as my career, and I will never forget that kindness and faith.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Being asked to feature on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was a turning point for me. It made me think about the GoTitleFree campaign and what I was trying to achieve in a different, prouder light.

The BBC contacted me when a reader in Feminist History at the University of Cambridge had recommended that Anita Rani involve me in a piece she was running about marital status titles and whether they were really necessary anymore.

I stopped talking about it as this ‘little weird thing’ I was doing, and started speaking about it with pride. It was no longer a ‘passion project’, I realised it’s my life’s work. My legacy.

To have been featured on a show about a campaign launched on zero budget only three years after its inception was a BIG deal.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

The absolute unwavering support of my family, which is very ‘girl heavy’!

I have quite a small family made up of extremely strong women with very big personalities.

This includes my own two daughters who I’m determined to be a role model for.

They all give me the energy and support I need for inner strength. Especially when self-doubt creeps in or I’m low on mojo.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I’ve had unofficial mentors. But never been part of an official scheme and would love to be!

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

All new parents should receive the same amount of leave and money from the government and their employer when they become a parent. regardless of gender, by law. Full stop.

Anyone who has physically given birth, needs that two weeks compulsory leave before returning to work in order to recover, but after that, absolutely every element of the leave and pay on offer, statutory and organisational enhancements should be equal. It’s the only way and it’s unfathomable that we’re not doing that as a nation already.

Why is the statutory leave and pay situation different for the one who’s pregnant, and the other parent? – It makes no sense.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I would let her know that her gut feelings are your guardian angels. Take a breath and listen, and hear what your instinct is telling you.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I’m about to launch a campaign targeted at schools, asking them to commit to a ‘title free’ pledge.

The GoTitleFree book is also half written and half in my head and so this year is all about using any spare time I have to get the 35,000 words which are still in my head, down ‘on paper’!

It’s my story about creating a marital status title free society. I’ve written about why I started pushing against ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms’ and ‘Mr’, and what my biggest challenges and successes have been.

What do I actually want from all of this? – For businesses to start telling me when they’ve gone ‘title free’ so that I can showcase them as being champions of inclusion. I know that there are many businesses that have and are making the change, and I want a nice big list so that I can celebrate best practices.

Personally, I want to never be asked, “Are you a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs’?” ever again, and for no person to ever be misgendered because the English-speaking world stubbornly relies on titles thinking they’re being polite.

Every employer who removes that ‘title’ box with the red asterisk, is making a huge difference to their customers and people who don’t want to be categorised or defined by gender or marital availability.

We’re talking about potentially millions of people, and only organisations can unlock that positive change!

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