It’s 2022 and there is still not a single country on Earth that has achieved gender equality.
In fact, women and girls suffer the most when it comes to pretty much every issue. Globally, women and girls represent the majority of the world’s poor, experience the worst of war, and are at much greater risk from the effects of climate change.
The UK ranked 23rd on the global gender gap index in 2021, trailing behind other European countries such as France, Germany, and Ireland. In case you’re wondering why, get a load of this: in the UK women are less likely to be employed full-time, just a third of members of parliament are women, and only 35% of board members for the largest publicly listed companies are women.
Gender inequality is even more acute when it intersects with racial inequality. Black women are one of the least protected groups in the UK. They are the least likely to be among the UK’s top earners compared to any other racial or gender group. When they are in senior management positions, two-thirds report experiencing racial bias at work. It’s not just in the workplace either; it’s a matter of life or death. Black women were up to four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Systemic racism in UK maternity care is also rife and Black women bear the brunt of that; they are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy and childbirth.
If these facts got stuck in your throat, you’re not alone.
Sophia Ukor is the founder of Violet Simon, a media-tech company providing women and girls with a platform to share their stories, access information and insight, and change the narrative.
Ukor’s latest venture, a magazine-book series entitled “Disruptors,” is doing just that: changing the narrative. Empowering women and girls is the key to ending extreme poverty NOW, and that’s what “Disruptors” is all about: amplifying the voices of women from diverse backgrounds using authentic storytelling.
“Disruptors” is a mag-book series that has (so far) shone a light on 35 women challenging the status quo in pursuit of positive societal impact for themselves, women, young girls, underrepresented communities, and more. Think "Humans of New York" but for change-making women.
We caught up with Sophia to talk about why storytelling matters, white feminism, and what it takes to be a disruptor.
Hey Sophia, can you tell us why you called the mag-series “Disruptors”?
“Disruptors” often have a negative connotation but when I thought of what it means to challenge the status quo for change, the word that chimed with me was “disruptor”. I wanted something that depicted women who are breaking barriers, refusing to be kept in a box, and challenging institutions, thoughts, and systems that no longer serve us. It is a way of reclaiming the word as something of good for women because every transformative agent of change throughout the course of history has had to disrupt something — usually the status quo.
What’s in the magazine?
“Disruptors” aims to amplify the voices of people who are not just in the spotlight but everyday women, because their stories matter.
In conversing with a lot of women I have come to realise that — whether it’s talking with a mother or an executive director — that they, from various backgrounds, have amazing stories. And I thought to myself: “We need more of this. We need to amplify these stories.”
I take a cue from my own experience, for example, because when I was younger, I had big dreams. I wanted to pursue a career in fashion and big media and I was always dreaming about how good I was going to be. But people told me it was impossible for a Black woman to dream that high.
So I looked for stories of women who had gone before me in the media. There was my mum of course, and Oprah, but that’s about it. Black women in the spotlight; there weren’t a lot of them.
It’s only in recent years that that’s changing. That we’re becoming more than just baby-making machines.
And that’s why storytelling is so important. Listening to people is so important. Listening to how people thrive in spite of adversity. Talking to these 35 women, I saw traces of myself in every one of them.
Disruptors magazine-series by Violet Simon, Series 1, 2022.
“Disruptors” was created to highlight the stories of these women. We asked them: bring your journey and your voice. Tell us how you got to this point in your life. If the mainstream media isn’t going to tell your story, then we will.
Hopefully, other women can draw strength and inspiration from these stories and they can instigate positive change in sectors and industries.
Going against the grain and challenging the status quo can be daunting. But there are women doing just that.
The whole idea behind “Disruptors” was that it wasn’t going to just be stereotypical profiles of high-powered celebrity influencers or public figures.
These are everyday women. You’ve probably never heard their names. But they’ve done amazing things from fighting for their communities to challenging the norm in government.
Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. “Disruptors” is a recognition of that fact. It’s a way of saying: “We see you, we admire you. What you’re doing matters.”
What kind of change are you looking to make?
I hope that more women embrace using their voices, take up more space in their careers and personal life, and share their stories because our stories are so powerful and the only way change can happen is when our stories are told from our perspective rather than from a man’s perspective, which has been the case for centuries.
Through having deep and thoughtful conversations, amplifying women’s voices, and inspiring other women and people into taking action on key women's issues can change happen. Through the stories of others, we learn, we grow, mindsets shift, and probabilities become possibilities. I hope to grow Violet Simon into a safe space for women to connect and be inspired by the stories of other women.
What’s the most powerful story you’ve heard?
That’s such a hard question. Because, in a way, every story is powerful in its own way. Every woman has a phenomenal story.
There is somebody we interviewed who had a “rough background.” She came from a working class family and she basically decided that she wanted to get a degree. That was disrupting the status quo for her. She left her job as an office manager to go to school.
Then there’s Nichola Sharp-Jeffs, the founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse, an organisation that contributed to the HSBC “Safe Spaces” campaign, an initiative that meant people experiencing domestic abuse can now walk into any of the bank’s UK branches and access a Safe Space where they can seek specialist support and advice.
Nicola also worked tirelessly to change legislation in the country and make sure economic abuse was classified as a serious crime. Until then, this form of abuse had never before been recognised in law.
Then there’s Minna Salami, an author, social critic, and African feminist. She is passionate about talking about feminism in an African setting.
But I can’t choose just one. All the stories are strong.
There is a strong focus on highlighting women from diverse backgrounds. Is that a response to white feminism?
White feminism was very one-sided. But when we talk about equality, it’s for all women.
When you actually look at gender equality, there’s still a huge gulf.
“The first Black woman to do this… The first Asian woman to do that…” We’re still hearing these stories. Which just shows that second-wave feminism hasn’t treated us all equally.
There are companies that amplify only white women but for me, I take diversity seriously.
With “Disruptors,” I was very conscious of asking myself: would a Black woman be drawn to this?
Maybe it is a response to white feminism. When we talk about feminism, we must not forget women from underrepresented communities. Not just underrepresented communities in the western world but women in the Global South whose stories are not being told.
Is telling women’s stories an act of resistance?
Yes, absolutely. Look at what’s happening in America. When I saw the news, I got really emotional and cried because I understand the dangers of what they’re doing.
It’s just another way in which society wants to control women, what we say, and the places we occupy.
Throughout history we have had so many men amplifying the voices of men. But women are always sidelined. For centuries we have had to fight for every right we have.
Telling stories is an act of resistance. We need to share more voices and more stories. We need to talk more about what women are doing. The good things that women are doing. The milestones and the struggles. Telling stories is another way to raise a call to action and that’s how change happens.
For centuries, we’ve been told to be quiet. Well here we are, being loud.
What does it take to be a disruptor in today’s world?
Tenacity, fear, support, leadership, and authentic unwavering commitment. These may seem like an out-of-place combination but they are key ingredients to being a disruptor.
Disruptors are risk takers. Throughout the course of history, when you look at some of the women who today, we consider disruptors in their day, we find that they took risks. The road to challenging established norms or stereotypes is often fraught with the risk of becoming victims of abuse or hate, rejection, or straight up running head-on into resistance.
Those who have travelled this road often speak of their fears too. It is easy to forget that these people are humans too, when their lives and work are always presented in the context of their achievements. So yes, there are fears, but disruptors feel the fear and push through anyway. It is often extremely useful to have a support network of people they can lean on to ask for help, they have learnt that asking for help is crucial to the work they do and despite the fear of rejection, they persevere.
Disruptors are leaders, who show unwavering commitment to achieving their goals, usually in pursuit of some new way of life, a new social contract, a new business to serve new markets, and sometimes, just a new way of thinking. One of the things I learnt from our Mechanics of Disruption event is that authenticity is crucial both in spotting opportunities for disruption and for serving as the bedrock for driving it through. Authenticity can be often hard to practise in life because it is sometimes more comfortable to just ignore the things that just slightly don’t seem right or are mildly inefficient. Through authenticity, we learn to show up better as ourselves, we look after ourselves adequately so we can also efficiently take up the causes we are passionate about and work on them without shooting ourselves in the foot.
You do not have to be a high-powered celebrity, a Fortune 500 CEO, or some esoteric inventor to be a disruptor. Most of the women I have met and some of whose stories we have featured in the series are disrupting the status quo in their personal and professional lives for the benefit of themselves, their families, and others.
How do I become a disruptor?
Series 1 is currently available digitally or you can order it in print. We’re currently working on Series 2 and will be sharing ways to get involved and inviting women to share their stories very soon. Or if you’re interested in working with us, there are lots of volunteer opportunities including writing for Violet Simon so get in touch!
Global Citizen Festival is calling on world leaders, corporations, and philanthropists to do more than they’ve ever done before to End Extreme Poverty NOW. Through our global campaign and with stages in two iconic locations — NYC’s Central Park and Accra’s Black Star Square — we will unite leaders, artists, activists, and Global Citizens around the world on Sept. 24 to achieve an ambitious policy agenda focused on empowering girls and women, taking climate action, breaking systemic barriers, and lifting up activists and advocates. Wherever you are in the world, you can join the campaign and take action right now by downloading the Global Citizen app.