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Natasha Clarke has not only championed diversity at all levels of her business, but has also gone the extra mile to lead change across the recruitment industry.
Her passion and commitment saw her win the 2015 Working Mums Champion Award at the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards.
The judges praised the way Clarke had shown an ongoing commitment to equality of opportunity for women. As far back as 1997, for instance, she spoke to the BBC about the barriers to success for women under 30.
The citation read: “Natasha Clarke has overcome the challenges of working within a male-dominated, competitive sales environment in her attempts to convince senior managers of the personal and business case for gender diversity. Her passion, resilience and consistent evidence-based arguments have helped to create a compelling business case.”
Clarke says that when she started in the recruitment industry 22 years ago she was the only female in her company other than the receptionist.
“I feel like it has been the same throughout my career. Although there are more women coming into the industry now, I have often been the only female around the table,” she says.
Around four years ago when her company, SThree, was looking to expand, it was noted that there was a shortage of management talent and that this was affecting the company’s ability to grow.
“I started to look at the gender split within the company and who was being considered for the more senior roles,” says Clarke. “Something didn’t seem right.
We had an intake of 45:65 female:male which was not so off balance, but as you climbed up the ranks there was a typical drop-off of women of 10% at every level.”
It was around the time of the publication of Lord Davies’ report on women on boards which was making the business case for diversity.
Clarke’s CEO wanted to increase diversity in the company and look at what was causing women in the organisation to leave or plateau at a certain level. “Something in our organisation needed to change; we needed to look at whether it was something to do with the way we supported our women,” says Clarke.
She set to work establishing the Identity programme which put the gender diversity debate on the table and looked at ways to empower women. She had to make sure she had a strong, compelling business case to present to the board.
Having made that case, Clarke created a steering group and a network of champions across the business to promote diversity. SThree’s CEO now sits on the steering group and there is now a global steering group as well as regional groups.
The programme seems to be paying dividends. Since 2012 the proportion of female directors at SThree has more than doubled from 4% to 11%.
The organisation has a target of 25% for the end of 2017/18. The percentages of female team managers has increased by 12% from 26% to 38 %. This provides the pipeline for future leadership.
Since the early years, the focus of Identity has switched to ensuring that diversity remains a priority and that is a central part of what the business does.
“We put in a lot of work to get the message out there and now it’s about maintaining the focus,” says Clarke. “It’s been four years of keeping it on the table and weaving it into everything we do so that it’s now part of how we operate. There’s a new language of inclusiveness around gender.”
Clarke believes the Lord Davies report and media interest in issues such as gender pay audits help to keep the issue in front of managers’ eyes and to reinforce messages around diversity and equality. “They help to keep up momentum on issues that will take years to address,” she says.
Another way of keeping up the momentum within her own organisation has been to celebrate success made so far through, for instance, entering awards.
However, she says this can have its challenges. “There are only so many initiatives and structural things you can do so other than showing how our data has changed it is quite hard to say we have done something new.” she says. “The hardest thing is behavioural change.”
Clarke adds that for women to progress requires more transparency about the expectations associated with certain roles, the criteria needed for promotion and about salary bandings.
“There is still work to do to make sure things are clear and transparent at all levels of the business and that we communicate clearly about what is required to get to the next level,” she says.
That also means senior managers understanding that, for example, typically women will not apply for the next rung up the career ladder unless they fulfill all the criteria whereas men are more likely to apply if they just tick a few of the boxes.
“It’s a question of seeing it how it is,” she says. In addition women need to be sponsored and candidates for promotion identified so they are empowered to go for promotion.
Another challenge for women’s career progression is unconscious bias. In the last year SThree has launched a behavioural change programme for managers and those with managerial responsibility looking at unconscious bias. This is being built into the team leadership programme.
Clarke herself has risen up the ranks over the past 12 years, moving from being a managing director to an executive sponsor, working for the corporate centre of SThree with the CEO.
She has a range of functions under her, including HR and strategy, and says this means there are “several levers” she can pull. Her passion and commitment to the Identity programme has seen the gender diversity issue move out of the HR function into a whole business issue which is now embracing the clients SThree works with.
“We are doing a lot more with our clients about best practice and how to create better workplaces. We want to be seen as champions for our customers,” she says, adding that most of the clients she works with are very much in favour of diversity and understand that women bring different perspectives to a company which are useful commercially.
Over the last few months SThree has held workshops for key clients about how they can meet the talent challenges they face and how they can recruit and retain more women.
Clarke says this can involve thinking about different talent pools and, in the case of SMEs, thinking more laterally about talent attraction. SThree, for instance, is looking at setting up a returner programme and extending homeworking.
Clarke says it is important if companies want to stand out as a business that they make their voices heard. “It creates a ripple effect,” she says. “It is important to talk about what you are doing and to help others who might not be as far along in the journey as we are.”
Clarke, who has two children aged 10 and 12, is also an advocate of taking her own commitment to diversity to a wider audience and acting as a role model for others in the industry.
She is Chair of the Women in Recruitment Network which aims to help other women in the sector and says having strong external networks with people working for other employers helps empower women to build powerful internal networks.
It also helps them to learn more about their industry as a whole and to meet potential mentors.
Clarke says her ultimate ambition is to see diversity totally embedded in her organisation and industry. “My biggest driver is that should I leave SThree diversity will be so much a part of what we do that it will not matter if I am not there,” she says. “We are close to being there.”