What do you know?
I had a realisation today that no matter what stage of my life or career I have been at, I have always been asked
“What do you know?”
I have thought about all the times I have been asked this question by someone attempting to discredit or belittle my views, skills or knowledge and laughed to myself at the prospect that maybe, there will never be a day when people stop asking me this.
Let’s start from the beginning:
“What do you know? You’re only young!”
I often say when I am public speaking, that British culture does a very strange thing to young people. It constantly rushes them to grow up, take responsibility, be more mature, become independent, make their own decisions and make their own way in life – whilst simultaneously belittling them for being immature, too young to understand, poor decision makers, born yesterday and not old enough to do any of the things we pressure them to do.
I was very young when I started my career, in a lot of people’s eyes, I still am. Maybe that’s why I’ve come up against so much criticism whenever I have something to say – because I’m old enough to say it but not old enough to be taken seriously. I am 27 soon and have been in this field since I was 19 years old. Not a month has gone by where someone hasn’t commented on my age.
I was 21 years old when I managed 2 crown courts and 5 magistrates courts and I was forever being challenged as ‘too young’ to manage the CJS, ‘too young’ to manage a large team, ‘too young’ to do my job well, ‘too young’ to teach others how to ensure vulnerable and intimidated witnesses were protected and empowered. I thought that as I got older, it would get less and less, but it hasn’t stopped yet.
It’s also worth mentioning that throughout my years as a trainer, I was forever being asked ‘What do you know? You’re only young!’ too.
A delegate once put their hand up whilst I was teaching about harmful sexual behaviours and the theories of development in children; and said “Excuse me, how old are you?”
For what felt like the thousandth time, I told them my age was irrelevant, laughed it off and carried on teaching for the day. I remember thinking ‘One day, when I am older, these dumb questions will stop…’
I have also watched people silently work out my age when I speak about my children. Looking at me, considering the age of my kids, counting backwards and then saying
“But you can’t be over 25? How have you got a 9 year old? How have you been in this field for as long as you say you have? That’s impossible…” Stranger things have happened, carry on with your group activity.
Maybe when I’m 30 or 40 or 50 I’ll be old enough to do my job? When will I be old enough to have the knowledge and skills I already possess?
But because I am young, what do I know?
“What do you know? You didn’t even finish school.”
Like lots of young people, I was not in a position to finish school. I wish I was, because I was as academic as I am now and I found education easy – it was much easier than life. I did rock up for my GCSEs a year after leaving school, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, having worked 40 hour weeks at 16 years old for a dodgy hotel chain and revised on my breaks and I still came out with 12 B grades – I remember being so pissed off that I didn’t get a single A grade but seeing as I hadn’t attended school in months; I now see it as some form of wizardry.
I remember trying to apply for jobs as a teenage, single mother. I knew my limits. I knew I would never be offered any of the dream jobs I wanted because I didn’t do any A-levels or go to university. My academic abilities were not matched with qualifications or training. Every time I had an idea or tried to express a view on something in my jobs as an accounts administrator or a waitress, I was asked “What do you know?”
But because I never finished high school, what did I know?
“What do you know? You’re just a practitioner!”
I’d worked so hard to become a practitioner in the criminal justice system and in sexual abuse counselling services. I was doing a degree part time around my full time jobs and my toddlers. I was so proud of myself. I had made it. I was trained up and I was studying psychology. I was doing a good job.
There is something frustrating about the field of social care and support in which leaders constantly harp on about how the service couldn’t run without the time and skills of the frontline practitioners, but woe betide you if you, a measly frontline practitioner, point out failings, problems or issues in the service or in other professional practice. Don’t you even dare suggest improvements or present evidence to the contrary. I remember questioning safeguarding cover-ups, lies about clients, the framing of counsellors for failings of management, poor practice with victims and witnesses of child abuse trials in my courts and I was often knocked back down to my station, “What do you know? You’re just a practitioner…”
I remember thinking “One day, when I have my degree and I have much more experience, no one will ask me that question…”
The other angle to this one is the ache I used to feel when a client would say “What do you know? You’re just a professional. You’ve never been where I’ve been.” I am a firm believer in non-disclosure to clients and I have never crossed that boundary where I have told a person experiencing trauma that I also have a long history of cumulative trauma. There were many times when I wished they knew that I was not the empty, soulless, jobsworth frontline practitioner they probably thought I was. I wish they knew I wasn’t like their perception of ‘all the rest’ and that I was going to fight for them all the way through the CJS and their recovery from abuse.
But because I was just a practitioner, what did I know?
“What do you know? You’re just a trainer!”
As my career developed, I realised that the only way to change the things I saw and to improve the experiences of thousands of victims of sexual violence – was to leave the field as a practitioner and to write and teach practitioners how to be better. But all of a sudden, the perception of me changed. I was no longer getting asked ‘What do you know? You are just a practitioner!’ – I was being asked ‘What do you know? You’re just the trainer!’ I designed, wrote, tested and taught training materials in sexual violence for 4 years and an assumption developed that I had never worked with real people, that I was a stereotypical trainer who teaches on a wide range of issues with shallow knowledge
I have had numerous incidents of people saying:
“Not being funny love but we actually do this job, working in sexual violence, day in day out. You are just a trainer, what do you know? What could you possibly teach us?”
I remember thinking “I am not about to launch into my years of frontline work… how do I answer this challenge? Maybe I’ll have to add an introduction about my career…”
That’s when I started doing a quick 2 minute introduction to my career history whenever I trained people – in an often unsuccessful attempt to convince them that I had years of previous and ongoing experience in the field of support and psychology. It’s also the reason I have a page on my website with a timeline of my achievements and awards.
I have a track record of excellent delivery and training all over the UK, with thousands of people following my work, hundreds of emails a day – so I must have taught them something.
But because I was just a trainer, what did I know?
“What do you know? You’re just an academic.”
Here I am, 10 years since the GCSE results, coming to the end of my PhD Forensic Psychology and widely regarded as a specialist in my topic areas. I have finally got to the level of knowledge that I thought would stop the dumb questions, asked only to attempt to silence me or belittle me – and yet I am now getting a new question. ‘What do you know? You’re just an academic.”
In fact, only a few weeks ago, I was told I was ‘too academic for the field of CSE…’ because someone didn’t like my critical thinking skills very much.
Too academic? What does that even mean?
I was delivering an invited keynote speech this month at a very large conference and I was discussing the most pivotal issues facing the field of CSE and the lack of evidence for much of the practice. At the end, there was a Q&A. A woman made a comment:
“With all due respect, you don’t even work in this field. You’re just an academic. What do you know? You don’t know what our practice is like, you don’t know how to work with young people.”
But because I am now an academic, what do I know?
I’ve been a young person. That’s not enough.
I’ve been a person in difficult circumstances. That’s not enough.
I’ve been a service user. That’s not enough.
I’ve been a practitioner. That’s not enough.
I’ve been a manager. That’s not enough.
I’ve been a trainer. That’s not enough.
I’ve been an academic. That’s not enough.
What do I know?
What I do know
I know how to write excellent materials in the field with a considered and sophisticated evidence base taken from peer reviewed studies
I know how to design, set up and run a large mental health service from scratch
I know how to perform ethical, impactful and focussed research and how to interpret findings
I know how to write tenders and win large bids my charity, The Eaton Foundation (£500,000 in the last 4 years)
I know how to secure, renovate and build a mental health centre from a derelict building
I know how to develop, validate and test psychometric measures in forensic psychology
I know how to write accredited, national training for tens of thousands of professionals
I know how to teach children about social issues
I know how to support people experiencing trauma
I know how the police and CJS works from front to back in sexual and domestic offences
I know how to inspire teams to be the best in the country
I know how to public speak to large crowds
I know how to advocate for victims and survivors of sexual violence and to ensure services put them first
I know how to hold my ground when I know I am right and I know when to learn from people who know much more than me
I know how to support people through the most distressing and life changing traumas
I know how to perform complex statistical and factor analysis on huge datasets in psychology
I know how to evaluate service delivery and outcomes for real people
I know how to challenge poor practice, whistle blow and know to never put myself before a client
I know how to talk people down from suicide attempts and self injuring
I know how to support someone in escaping a relationship where their life is in immediate danger
I know how to talk stakeholders, government and funders from all over the world
I know how to influence people, services and huge systems to be the best they can be
I know how to explain very difficult concepts to a wide range of people, including very young children
I know how to write charity constitutions, policies and legal documents
I know how to negotiate large contracts for property, tenders and services in the charitable sector
I know how to teach at every level from primary school to doctoral programmes
I know how to take a calculated risk in my practice to get the best outcome for a client
I know how to teach children how to public speak and teach others
I know how to use my incessantly critical, quick thinking to assess evidence and challenge bias
I know how to write about, speak about and perform excellent research in forensic psychology
What do I know?
I know my quality of work speaks for itself.
I know my thoughts and views are shaping the field.
I know my squishy little brain will make a massive impact in my lifetime.
And one last thing:
This is an inherently female issue. Males are not questioned the way young, successful women are. Research tells us that men are more likely to be successful at job interviews for jobs they are not even qualified for just because men are always seen as more competent and more authoritative than women in the workplace (which unsurprisingly, has links to the pay gap).
If you’re reading this as a female professional or academic and thinking ‘OH MY GOSH, THIS IS ME!’ then get in touch with me for a rant and a chat – and maybe some cake if you’re nearby. Remember that you are awesome.
And when people ask you
‘What do you know?’
Look them in the eye, keep a straight face and say
“Nothing really. I just make it up as I go along, mate.”
www.victimfocus.org.uk – My work in forensic psychology and sexual violence
www.theeatonfoundation.org.uk – My work in male mental health and wellbeing