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Celebrating International Women's Day
with Kate McDonnell

Kate McDonnell is the co-owner and director of Cavalry. In this inspiring interview, Kate reflects on the importance of celebrating International Women's Day and shares her thoughts on gender equality, the challenges women still face, and the inspiring women who motivate her. With wisdom gained from her own remarkable journey overcoming obstacles, Kate offers empowering advice for the next generation of women entering the workforce.

Why is it important to celebrate International Women’s Day? 

Although there have been huge successes and incredible progress in gender equality during my lifetime, it’s vital that we guard those achievements as there has also, at times, been slippage and even regression – sad to see when you’ve grown up through the 70s with what felt like a revolution!

The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights, and representation in leadership roles has been hard-won, yet we can’t take these gains for granted. Internationally, there are many parts of the world in which women are struggling for even the most basic of rights – the right to education, to vote, to own property, to make choices about their own bodies. In some regions, gender-based violence and oppression are still tragically commonplace. There is still much to be done to achieve true equality and empower women and girls everywhere to reach their full potential.

Why is equality so important?

Because anything less implies that women are lesser beings and that is obviously far from the case! The world needs all the talent it can get at the moment to steer it through such stormy waters and women have so much to offer.

Throughout history, women’s contributions have been marginalised or erased, but we know that when given the opportunity, women are innovators, leaders and problem-solvers. From the boardroom to the laboratory, from government to the arts, women’s perspectives and life experiences bring unique insights that can help address humanity’s greatest challenges. In this era of climate change, conflict, and technological disruption, we cannot afford to sideline half of the world’s brainpower.

Empowering women and girls is not just a matter of basic human rights, it’s also critical for driving progress and shaping a better future for all.

What is your proudest achievement? 

That’s a hard one! I actually have three…

1. I’m proud of that fact that, back in the early eighties, I was the first of my large, extended, working-class family to go to university. I was able to get to Oxford because there were teachers at my comprehensive school who nurtured me and gave me the confidence to apply. The then grant scheme also meant that my socio-economic background didn’t matter. I was incredibly lucky to have had such support – I worry that this may be one of the areas in which there has been slippage when it comes to equality of opportunity. 

2. I’m also proud of the fact that, after being unable to work for 20 years from my mid-twenties to my mid-forties due to a disabling chronic health condition, I was then able to break back into employment and have a successful career. There were three reasons why this was possible: my husband, Brian, who was the most enabling of support workers, my first employer (a woman), who looked beyond my disability and took a chance on me and the Access To Work Scheme, which took away some of the financial fear of trying to get back into work. Again, it was having the right personal support that broke down barriers, but also having an enabling state scheme in place.

3. Finally, I’m very proud and deeply moved whenever I hear positive feedback from individuals about the life-changing care and support we are able to offer at Cavalry – that our work, in turn, breaks down barriers and enables and empowers people to live the best lives they can.

Which woman or women have inspired you most?

I’m going to answer this one very personally as I have just lost my lovely dad: Dame Cicely Saunders, a key founder of the hospice movement. My dad died in Woodlands Hospice in Liverpool and the care there was absolutely superb. Every detail and every interaction was the best it could be and it’s been such a comfort to us all.

Dame Cicely was born in 1918 and trained as a nurse, medical social worker and, eventually, as a doctor and she was passionate about seeing and caring for the whole person – physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. Her revolutionary approach emphasised not just treating the disease, but providing compassionate support to address the total pain experienced by those facing terminal illness.

The hospice philosophy she pioneered views death as a part of life’s journey, focusing on improving quality of life for patients and their families. Dame Cicely helped shift the medical model to one of holistic, dignity-preserving end-of-life care. The peace of mind her vision brought my father and our whole family during his final days is a debt I can never repay. Her profound humanity and legacy of love have touched countless lives across the globe.

What is your favourite quote by a woman?

Again, from Cicely Saunders, as I am so appreciative and grateful for her pioneering work just now:

‘You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.’

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion, what does this mean to you? 

I think it’s important to be always on the watch for ways to help talented women to break through barriers in the workplace, but also to champion activity – whether economic or non-economic – that may be dismissed and devalued as being ‘women’s work’.

For too long, professions dominated by women like teaching, nursing, childcare and social work have been underpaid and underappreciated, despite being absolutely vital to the functioning of society. The unpaid labour of raising children and maintaining households is rarely accounted for, yet represents an enormous economic contribution.

We need to interrogate why activities associated with femininity are so frequently marginalised, while placing greater value on traditional “male” roles and industries.

Dismantling these outdated stereotypes and unconscious biases is key to achieving true workplace equity and empowerment for women. Whether it’s sponsoring mentorship programmes, advocating for gender-neutral parental leave policies, or demanding equal pay for work of equal value – we all have a role to play in levelling the playing field.

Only by uplifting and validating women’s achievements across all spheres can we tap into the world’s full creative and productive potential.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?

There are some battles won in the 70s and 80s that may need to be fought and won again – I’m thinking particularly of the trolling which successful or outspoken women can receive on social media which can be both discouraging to women with ambition and also insidious in terms of undoing progress made during the last 50 years.

What should be spaces for free expression and empowerment have too often become toxic environments where women are belittled, sexualised, and driven from conversations through intimidation. This silencing and shaming not only damages individual women, it deals a broader blow to gender equality by pushing women out of important societal discourses. The psychological impacts can be devastating, deterring the next generation of girls from pursuing their dreams.

We cannot allow hard-won advancements like greater female leadership and participation to be rolled back by these actions. Calling out misogyny, teaching digital literacy, and creating community guidelines that enforce basic human decency online are vital. Incredible women before us broke through innumerable barriers – we owe it to them and future generations to create an internet that empowers rather than oppresses based on gender.

What message would you like to share with other women starting out in their career?

  • Muster your powers of resilience
  • Preserve your sense of humour and generosity of spirit
  • Always look after – and value yourself – personally, as well as professionally
  • Cultivate your inner strength, that unshakable core that reminds you of your worth and capabilities, especially on the toughest days.
  • Find solace and inspiration in your communities, mentors and support networks
  • Your dedication and sacrifice do not go unnoticed – you are seen, valued and deeply appreciated.

How do we encourage more women to become leaders?

Being generous with our own time and encouraging in our mentorship of promising women and doing all we can to shatter glass ceilings.

We also need to redefine what constitutes “leadership” through a female lens. The qualities traditionally lauded in leaders represent an antiquated model. The modern challenges we face demand a more collaborative, nurturing, emotionally intelligent approach that allows women’s strengths to be fully expressed.

By creating more pathways, striving to make the work environment itself more equitable, and expanding our notion of what effective leadership looks like, we can inspire and support women to shatter those ceilings once and for all. Only then can we harness the full potential of humanity’s brilliant, visionary minds – regardless of gender.