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Alumni offer advice to mark Women's History Month

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Successful women talk of their experiences

Three women, successful in their careers, leaders, and all alumni of the University of East London, returned for a special discussion to mark Women’s History Month, putting their accomplishments in the context of a broad sweep of progress in equality.

They were:

Rebecca Weef Smith, pictured below right, graduated from UEL in 2005 from the BA Fashion and Textiles degree and again in 2017 from the MSc Applied Positive Psychology degree. Wearing wellbeing is her adaptation of applied positive psychology through the medium of fashion. 

Anna Apostolova, top right, graduated from UEL in 2012 with a Professional Diploma in Architecture. Anna has worked with leading UK universities on higher education projects and she currently focuses on large scale residential schemes for major housebuilders such as Bellway and Mount Anvil.

Adriane Bet-Geoghegan, left,  is founder and owner of MuddyBoots Kids Sports Clubs and an experienced qualified coach in volleyball, tennis, football and athletics.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Rebecca: I was very shy when I was younger. I had no comprehension of my own amazingness. I thought I wasn’t enough in any area – I wasn’t clever enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t creative enough. Everything I tried to do I was not good enough. So, I would go back and tell myself: you don’t need permission from anyone else to be who you can be. All of that is already inside of you.

Adriane: Twelve years ago, I was arriving in England and I couldn’t even speak the language, but I had plans that I wanted to do and I was ready to work hard. I think I have become softer because I am a mother but I would tell my younger self – and anybody – it will be difficult but there will be another day. Believe in yourself.

Anna: If I could go back, I would say obsess less about the little details. During the first weeks at work I discovered that a quick and messy sketch that prompts conversation is way more useful than a late, but perfectly presented drawing. I would also encourage myself to do more “living”. The best research I ever produced came from live experience, not from rewriting the theory.

What are the challenges of being a woman in a male dominated world?

Anna: Architecture used to be a lot more male dominated than it is today. And while progress has been made, some bias still exists. Women are still expected to behave and sound like a man to be taken seriously. That is wrong. You don’t need to be aggressive to carry your point. Rather than us sounding more like men, we should get men to accept us the way we are. I’ve been told I’m not assertive enough – but just because I’m not shouting doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about. Let women be women.

Adriane: I coach 15-18-year-old boys at volleyball. I am the only female coach, and the other male coaches look at me like I literally don’t know anything. They all undermine me there is very little respect. But with my own business, MuddyBoots Kids Sports Club, it’s fine because it all starts with me. I set the tone.

Which female role models do you most admire?

Rebecca: One of the things I write a lot about is ageism and how women are still subjected to this idea that we need to age in a certain way. So I still really admire women who are challenging those views about the way we are supposed to age as women.

I ran a competition in the magazine to find a new cover star and I met this woman who was in her early 80s and she was stunningly beautiful but she’d never had the opportunity to be professional model.

She won the competition and has gone on to gain a modelling contract. She came to England as a very young German refugee and was fostered by family in UK. She was alone and, having to make a new life for herself in foreign country, she faced a lot of different challenges. Now this woman is in her 80s and she has this new career as a fashion model and she’s just so inspirational.

Anna: As an architect I find the story of Maggie Keswick Jencks very inspiring. She was a writer, gardener and designer, but also the driving force behind Maggie’s - a charity providing free cancer support and information in centres across the UK. From her own experience Maggie knew that cancer patients are often left to come to terms with their diagnosis in windowless corridors or side rooms that offer no comfort in such difficult moment.

Together with her husband architectural theorist and historian Charles Jenks, Maggie set to create the Maggie Centres as spaces of solace for cancer patients. She died before the first one opened but her legacy lives on and today there are 27 Maggie centres in the UK and three abroad, all designed by famous architects who joined the cause and proved that architecture can play a very active role in people’s wellbeing.

This year we also have two women - Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the founders of architecture studio Grafton (Dublin) winning the Pritzker Prize – one of the highest honours in architecture. In the 41 years the Pritzker Prize has been awarded, only three women have ever won. Grafton’s win takes this number up to five and hopefully marks a shift in our field towards more recognition of the talents of women.

In terms of a personal female role model, I’m one of those who say my mum. She’s lived through great change and what amazed me the most was that at age 50 she learned AutoCAD [computer aided design] for work. At an age where people think maybe it’s time to retire, she decided to acquire a whole new skill and carried on working. It showed me it doesn’t matter when you do it, you can still do so much

Adriane: My role model is my mum. My dad was a lorry driver and away a lot, so my mother was looking after three girls on her own – three under three. I have always been attached to my mum so when she moved to England because of my dad’s work, I moved too. She is always there for me and she never wants anything back. She has taught to me be patient with everyone and to be grateful and I’m very lucky to have someone like her and I’m truly inspired by her.

Rebecca: It’s really interesting how the personal relationships we have with women are so vital. We think about all the role models we could choose – famous women, politicians, scientists, women who have changed the world – but actually it’s those close relationships with women that change our views of ourselves. They are the ones who really make the impact.