Could you be the next chair of Aspire?

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Christine Edge shares an exciting opportunity to get involved in Aspire in 2020.

Louise and I have been co-chairing Aspire (our colleague network representing women) since April 2018 and have recently spent time with the rest of the colleague networks and the central Inclusion team to build our plans for 2020. After lots of thought, we feel the time is right to pass on this opportunity to new Co-chairs in 2020. We’ve loved every minute and we’re so proud to see how Aspire has grown during this time.

With the work we have done, it’s really important that we have diversity in our new Co- chairs, so it would be great if we had both a male and a female to help take us forward.  The roles are leadership roles, so Chairs are expected to demonstrate the leadership behaviours, particularly around collaboration.

You don’t need to have previous experience, but we do need you to be forward thinking, strategic in your approach and collaborative – working alongside other colleague networks to maximise impact.  You also need to be able to balance your time between your day job, and running and chairing the network.

It’s a great opportunity for any colleague who cares passionately about women at Co-op. The role can be shaped by you, but as a general overview; you’ll lead the steering group, work together with other colleague networks, and manage relationships with various stakeholders around the business to ensure Aspire are aligned on the right priorities.

If you’re interested in the position or if you would like to discuss, please email with an expression of interest.

Christine Edge
Modern Workplace Programme Manager

I’ve realised how important it is to have people I can ask for help

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In her second blog, Emma talks about caring for her mum after her dad’s death.

My dad was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last year. When he passed away in January this year, reality finally hit me. Despite knowing the cancer was going to kill him, we didn’t expect him to go so soon. Thankfully, his death was peaceful and he was spared the horrific pain we’d seen others go through.

But the suddenness of his death meant nothing practical had been sorted out. Dad was the primary carer for my mum, who has supra nuclear palsy. There was so much he did for her that he didn’t have time to share and, as an only child, it all fell to me when he was gone.

Unexpected events

Although my mum had been poorly for a number of years, we only found out in November what was really going on. Her diagnosis gave me yet another research job, which soon made it clear that she was going to deteriorate rapidly too.

My mum entered hospital a week after my dad passed away. Part of her disease means she can’t think broadly – unless she’s asked a specific question, she can’t tell you anything hurts or is wrong. One morning, while I was planning my dad’s funeral, I found her on the floor. I rang an ambulance which took her to hospital, where we found out she had sepsis. She’d ignored a water infection which had spread up into her bladder, kidneys and lung. 24 hours later and she’d have been dead – always a useful thing to hear from a paramedic when you’re already terrified!

Sharing the load

I thought I was the only one going through what felt like hell, completely making it up as I went along. But that’s where PACT came in. Nobody’s experiences are the same, but there are similarities – like the complexities of caring – that bring us together and form the basis of a strong support network. We’re all there for each other, whether it’s just a silly picture, a hug or some treats when we’re having a hard day.

The past eight months have been tough to put it lightly. I’ve lost my dad and brought my mum back from the brink of death, while running two households and darting between both to care for our family pets. I’ve been trying to register for probate and navigating the wonders of the social care system, without having any idea what I’m doing. Working full time alongside all that would take its toll on anyone’s mental health, and it’s stretched me in a way I never thought possible.

A positive view

That stretch has taught me a huge amount about what you can do when you put your mind to it. I’ve realised how important it is to have people I can ask for help. I’ve learnt how important it is to give myself a bit of a break from time to time, and hold onto the happy things in life. Ultimately I’ve learnt that it’s all about perspective; I’ve got friends I know will be there for me for years to come, and that makes the future much brighter than it seemed a few months ago.

If you’ve got caring responsibilities, might have them in the future or are managing someone with caring responsibilities come and get in touch with us at PACT. Although our experiences are all different we know what it’s like and are always here to support.

Emma Ainsworth
Lean Operations Manager


If you want to get involved, find PACT on Yammer or email

It’s never easy when things in your life change, but talking about it really helps

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As part of Carer’s Week, Emma Ainsworth shares the first of two blogs about navigating life while supporting her parents.

At 69 years young, my dad was spending his retirement skiing, pottering round the garden and spoiling our pet cats rotten. I’d never even known him to have a headache, let alone anything serious. To me he was invincible, the anchor in my life that would always be there whenever I needed him.

This time last year my view of the world completely changed. After having a cough and a bit of a sore chest for a few weeks, my dad was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and I radically came to the realisation that he was no longer invincible. The cancer had spread to many of his other organs and left him with only a year to live. We were completely astounded. It simply didn’t make sense to me that he could be poorly, let alone terminally ill.

My response

I put on a brave face and spent endless hours researching treatments. I put all my energy into finding answers, but the only options available were my dad’s idea of hell. He’d lose his independence and be bed-bound, trapped in a room and unable to be around people.
There was no way he’d agree to that and, after more days of frenzied research, my dad made the tough decision to forego chemotherapy. An eternal optimist, he became determined to continue living his life, spending all of his time enjoying his favourite things. Although it was an incredibly difficult decision, the days that followed became eerily calm as we all realised our time together was running out and we needed to make the most of it.

Until then, I’d been focusing mostly on my career. But suddenly work wasn’t my top priority and the life I knew disappeared pretty much before my eyes. The next six months became a frantic balancing act of keeping on top of everything but never getting caught up in the detail. I couldn’t give anything my full attention and my usual high standards disappeared. Things would get done, but I wasn’t going to bully myself if they weren’t perfect. There simply wasn’t time for that.

Meeting PACT

I spent my days constantly reprioritising and asking for support from my friends and colleagues. It was then that I started going to PACT lunches, and they were an amazing anchor for me. Despite everything being completely up in the air in the rest of my life, I’d found a place where people really understood, because they were going through similar things too. We talked about anything and everything, sometimes just ending up laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

My dad passed away on the 19 January 2019 and reality finally hit. The man who had always been there for me was gone and I had to juggle everything else without him there to support me or tell me what to do when I felt lost.

A helping hand

The following months have been incredibly hard but the amazing people I’ve met through PACT have kept me going, always there to support me, give me advice and share in my pain. It’s never easy when things in your life change, but talking about it really helps. It’s been invaluable having people around me who understand and I couldn’t have gotten through it without them.

If you’re going through something similar, or might have caring responsibilities to come in the future, come and talk to us. We’d love to see you and we’re always here with a biscuit and a brew!

Emma Ainsworth
Lean Operations Manager


If you want to get involved, find PACT on Yammer or email

Post-natal depression and me, how talking and support have helped

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In support of mental health week, Charlotte Bleasdale shares her experience of living with post-natal depression.

I was diagnosed with having post-natal depression 7 years ago, a few months after the birth of my son, Jack. I have two children, Jack and Holly.  I can still remember how ashamed I felt admitting I needed help. I was so low during a period when I should have been so happy. I felt like such a failure not being able to pull myself together and be the bubbly, happy person everyone knows me to be.

I kept my feelings to myself for a few months before asking my husband, Andrew for help.  I was in a place of trying to understand why I felt the way I did and not wanting to see anyone or leave the house.

Over the years, the way I feel and what I can only describe as periods of darkness I feel, haven’t changed. But the way I handle myself and cope with my feelings has got easier. I’ve found coming to work has been a huge help. There are days I just want to hide under my duvet and not face the world but coming in has helped me bring out the best in me and be the person I want to be again.  I find this hard to say, as I realise at home, with my loving and supportive family they are the ones who suffer the most from me not being the best mummy or wife.

Moving forward

Until recently, I hadn’t ever wanted to share how I feel with anyone at work. I felt I couldn’t. It would be career suicide. I was worried people would think I was some sort of crazy person.

But in January this year this changed. Over Christmas I’d been ill with the flu, things just spiralled and I didn’t want to come to work at all.  I met with Andy, my manager, cried and cried, and shared my feelings. Andy was brilliant, he listened, didn’t judge and was as supportive as ever. Nothing has changed and I haven’t been treated any differently which is what I was most worried about. My biggest fear is that people see me differently and then act in a different way towards me.

I cannot express the sense of relief I felt to share my feelings; it was like a huge weight had been lifted, like I could be open and free.

Support and encouragement

It is okay to not be okay. My friends, family and work family are all amazing and love me no matter what I am feeling or going through. I realise now everyone is there to support me and doesn’t judge me.

I wanted to share my story in the hope of inspiring others to reach out for help and support and to encourage managers to be as supportive as mine.

Charlotte Bleasdale
Programme Manager, Supplier Engagement and Change Integration


If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this story you may be interested in joining Aspire and our parent and careers network, PACT. You can email Aspire at

For more support, you can also contact:

PANDAS Helpline – for women experiencing pre and post-natal depression:

Co-op Employee Assistance Programme:

We have to demand and ensure equality of life outcomes

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In part two of her interview with Lyla Penman, Hazel Reeves talks about empowerment and equality ahead of International Women’s Day.

In our last blog Hazel Reeves talked about becoming the sculptor of Manchester’s newly unveiled statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. Until ‘Our Emmeline’, 16 out of 17 statues across the city were men, the single woman being Queen Victoria; her statue in Piccadilly Gardens was unveiled over 100 years ago, before women even had the right to vote.

Hazel’s been involved in women’s rights activism globally, and we wanted to find out more. We asked her about what being a woman means to her and what she feels is needed to create female empowerment in the workplace.

Our network seeks to empower women, and encourages our members to push for equality – what does empowerment and equality mean to you as a woman?

When I worked promoting gender equality, I had colleagues who spent a lot of time tousling with definitions of empowerment in relation to women. So I thought I would cheat and nick one of their definitions (from Rosalind Eyben, Naila Kabeer and Andrea Cornwall in 2008): ‘Empowerment is fundamentally about power – about the power to redefine our possibilities and options and to act on them, the power within that enables people to have the courage to do things they never thought themselves to be capable of, and the power that comes from working alongside others to claim what is rightfully theirs’. And it can’t be a top-down process.

For me, gender equality and women’s empowerment is about transformation – transforming gender power relations. It’s not enough to give women equal opportunities to men as there isn’t a level playing field. We have to demand and ensure equality of life outcomes. This means we first have to challenge discrimination and violence against women, and we have to challenge limiting gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes and behaviour.

I’m sure Aspire is much-needed. I’ve yet to find an organisation where [a network of this kind] is not needed. The time is right to push harder for gender equality – remember that there is no justice without gender justice.

What is the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and how did it shape who you are?

It wasn’t advice as such, but I saw my mum, only educated until she was aged 14, do spectacular things in addition to bringing up me and my two sisters. She was a racing cyclist and won medals in national races. She founded and ran a bird hospital for over 40 years. She was a book collector and bric-a-brac dealer. She did a BA in her 60s at Surrey University. She showed me that women could do whatever they put their mind to, and not only that – they could excel.

A piece of advice I received later in life was actually a quotation by George Eliot on a greetings card. She says ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’ It was a risk changing career from a well-paid research manager promoting women’s rights, to becoming an artist. But George Eliot inspired me all the way, and now I’m very happy as a full-time sculptor, working to commission, doing what I should have always done but not regretting my rather convoluted route to my final destination.

For more information on the WoManchester project, visit

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For the design of the statue I wanted to show Emmeline as the courageous, determined, dignified and elegant activist she was

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Sculptor Hazel Reeves talks to Lyla Penman about creating Manchester’s new statue of Emmeline Pankhurst.

As International Women’s Day fast approaches (8 March), we’ve started to think about the women who inspire us and the impact that empowered women in history have had on our everyday lives.

Hazel Reeves is the sculptor behind the recently unveiled Emmeline Pankhurst statue in St Peter’s Square, Manchester. Working from her studio in the West Sussex countryside, she does a lot of work to promote women’s rights internationally. As well as creating the bronze of Emmeline for Manchester, she’s made other artworks celebrating women, including one of women biscuit factory workers, the Cracker Packers, for Carlisle. In this first blog, she talks about what Emmeline – both statue and figure – means to her.

What made you enter the competition for the Emmeline Pankhurst commission?

I saw the call for artists and immediately knew I had to apply. I’m never happier than when I’m combining my passion for portraiture with telling stories of struggles for social justice and redressing the lack of representation of women in public art. Emmeline is a hero of mine, of Manchester’s, and of women’s rights advocates across the world. Easy.

What does Emmeline’s legacy mean to you?

I admire her courage and tenacity in the face of sometimes violent resistance and her ability to inspire women of all classes to rise up and demand the vote. She brought about new forms of activism and pioneered concerns that became central to feminism later in the century.

Gaining the vote and enabling women to stand for public office weren’t just end goals but a route towards women shaping the decisions that affect their lives, challenging and changing discriminatory legislation and carving out space for women to be whatever they want to be. My choices and achievements in life have been hugely advanced by the sacrifices of the suffragettes and suffragists.

It’s befitting that the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst – affectionately known as ‘Our Emmeline’ – was unveiled on 14 December 2018, the centenary of when the first women voted in a general election in 1918. Despite this, both my grandmothers had to wait until 1928 before they were able to vote.

What impact do you want the statue to have and how did you include that in your design?

I wanted the statue to highlight Emmeline Pankhurst’s extraordinary contribution to progressing women’s rights, and remind us of Manchester’s radical legacy as the birthplace of Emmeline and the suffragette movement. But I also wanted her back on Manchester’s streets, to be a catalyst, to move people to action. We need her as much as ever to inspire us all – women and men – to rise up and demand gender equality and demand the end to violence against women. I dedicated the statue to our modern-day Emmelines, who are tirelessly working for women’s rights, and to the future generations of Emmelines.

For the design of the statue I wanted to show Emmeline as the courageous, determined, dignified and elegant activist she was. The scene is one Emmeline would be very familiar with – the suffragettes are ringing bells, summoning people from their homes and workplaces, to listen to Emmeline. Someone grabs a kitchen chair as a makeshift rostrum and the 5ft Emmeline climbs atop and addresses the noisy crowds, urging women to rise up and demand the vote. This design nods to the work she has done but also to the work that is left to be done.

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It’s been another busy year for Aspire

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Aspire’s Co-Chair Louise celebrates the network’s best bits from 2018.

2018’s been another momentous year for women. We celebrated 100 years of suffrage, read gender pay gap reports from all employers with 250+ colleagues, and saw Hollywood bring feminism to the center stage at the Golden Globes.

Inside Co-op, gender equality remains a top priority and the small army of colleagues who are part of the Aspire community has been working hard to make a difference.

Volunteer power

We’ve achieved a heck of a lot this year, and it’s down to our people. Colleagues involved with Aspire and other D&I activity are all volunteers, and they all role model the ways of Being Co-op. Without their dedication, commitment and enthusiasm we wouldn’t be able to achieve everything we have this year:

– 3 inspirational career story roundtables
– 3 mentor and mentee training days
– 3 new regional networks launched
– 4 Parents and Carers Together (aka PACT) lunches and workshops
– 5 blog posts on our new diversity blog
– 8 personal development days
– 9 Know Your Co-op events
– 11 newsletters
– 15 International Women’s Day celebration events
– 17 colleagues trialling the personal development support network
– 17 colleagues in our steering group
– 100+ parent and carers buddies
– 150+ colleagues involved with the mentoring scheme
– 500+ Facebook group members
– 800+ newsletter subscribers
– 1,900+ Twitter followers

Phew! Well done everyone.

A refreshed identity

When Aspire was established in 2012, our purpose was to create a network that encourages women in lower grades to ‘aspire’ for senior roles.

Rebalancing the numbers is still important, but being a woman involves much more than career development and we wanted Aspire to reflect this. We wanted to move from being a network to a community, strengthen our purpose and change perceptions of being ‘women only’. After lots of workshops and input from colleagues, we’ve agreed on a new mission statement:

Aspire is a community of colleagues who believe that all women in Co-op have a right to equality. We support others with their career development, challenge others to support women and raise awareness of issues which affect women.

For our brand, we’ve kept the name Aspire but a new, less work-focused tagline – ‘Women in Co-op‘.  For big moments, such as International Women’s Day, we’re also using a new purple cloverleaf Co-op brand; purple’s the international colour of women, and it signifies Co-op’s commitment to gender equality.

Growing our community

When Christine and I became chair this year, we both agreed that growing an inclusive Aspire community was really important. We would both love for every single colleague, all 65,000+, to be involved!

We now have a web page and a national Facebook Group so our community can chat, share ideas and organise activity in a safe space. We’re also helping colleagues to set up regional groups so they can focus on their specific needs. Colleagues in Glasgow, Plymouth and Insurance held their first Aspire events this year.

Get involved

We’ve got big ideas and plans for Aspire next year and we’re always looking for colleagues who want to get involved. Find out more information on our webpage:

Louise Anderson
Aspire Co-Chair

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