Diverse thinking

Natalie Bickford, winner of the Working Mums Champion Award, talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her role as European HR Director at Sodexo.

Natalie Bickford is clearly not a woman who likes to take things easy. Not only is the winner of the Working Mums Champion Award a mum of a 12-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son but she has also recently moved to the countryside and lives on a farm with donkeys, geese, horses and other animals.

Despite this she has a jet-setting life as European HR Director of Sodexo with her office being based in Paris and most of her week, bar Mondays when she works from home, spent commuting around Europe. She says that even as recently as five years ago she would have thought of gender diversity as more of an individual issue for women to tackle. "I have had such a reversal in my mindset on this in the last few years," she says.

This was mainly due to some research she conducted while at AstraZeneca following a grievance that a woman employee had lodged on the grounds of gender.

"I realised during that process that there was much more we needed to be doing on diversity and I looked at what the key things we needed to know were. I started to listen to people's stories and it was clear that there were barriers women put up themselves to career progression as well as the barriers that institutions put up, whether overt or not. We needed to tackle both sides of the equation," she says. That included looking at how organisations might create an environment in which women can progress and getting women to look at themselves more and ask why, for instance, they didn't go for a particular opportunity that presented itself.


When she moved to Sodexo four and a half years ago, Natalie was all fired up from this work at AstraZeneca. The quality of life services company had good statistics on diversity and already had a very strong global commitment to gender diversity that was directly and regularly championed by Group CEO, Michel Landel. Diversity also formed part of Sodexo's Group strategy. However, Natalie felt there was a need to create ways of supporting the strategy.

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So she set about establishing a Diversity and Inclusion Council and writing a diversity strategy which included a mandatory one day D& I training programme. Prior to that only issues like health and safety were mandatory. "The chief executive agreed that it needed to be mandatory and we set about training several thousand people," says Natalie.

The workshops were run by an HR professional and an internal manager – someone of the same status as the people being trained. The reason for getting internal managers to do the training was to keep costs down, but it turned out to be very positive. "The possible drawbacks of this approach were that people might object to not being trained by a trainer, but in fact when they say it was someone like them they were more engaged," says Natalie.

Managers who did the training were themselves enrolled on a three-day training course. Sodexo is now moving onto the next phase of D & I training in the UK, which involves online training targeted at specific strands of diversity and face-to-face in-depth training looking at areas like unconscious bias.


Natalie has also been involved in the launch of a women's network and in making sure this has a high profile. The network – whose aim is to provide a forum for women to support each other – includes men and provides local and regional training on things like maternity coaching and helping women back into the workplace after maternity leave. "It is good to have men involved too as it helps everyone to understand how different genders approach things," says Natalie.

It also embraces everything from networking events to the provision of mentors, whom Natalie believes are crucial to women's career success. She herself has had two – one was a female senior manager at Barclays where she began her career and is now a friend; the other was a male ex-manager who created opportunities for her around the time she had children.

Since last Spring Natalie has been now on a structured mentoring programme with FTSE 100 chairmen and spends a couple of hours with her chairman every quarter and can contact him at any time she needs to. "It's really invaluable," she says. "Women's mentors don't need to be women. They just need to have an open mind and I think the programme has really opened the senior executives' eyes to the issues facing younger women."

Sodexo is just about to launch a new generations network, building on the success of the women's network – it will bring older and younger people in the company together and focus on what each can learn from the other generation.

Shared parenting

One of the key bottlenecks for women's career progression is middle management and Natalie thinks is important to get across to women in those positions is that they will have more flexibility the more senior they become.

"You have more control over your diary and can manage your own flexibility, depending on your role. If you are a middle manager running a site you have to be there as that is where the job is, but if you get to be regional head you have more flexibility so don't get stuck in the middle," she counsels.

She relates how a senior female executive had approached her saying she wanted to work four days a week as she was doing 6am-9pm more than five days a week and was getting close to retirement. Natalie told her to ask for more flexibility, including working a day from home as she knew she would do more than four days' work if she cut down. "She was about to ask to walk away from 20% of her pay even though she would be working more than four days," says Natalie.

She adds that it comes down to how women and others perceive work life balance issues. "If a man says he wants to see his son playing rugby he is still congratulated while if a woman says that it is seen as a working mum problem," she says.

Natalie believes that the Blackberry or smartphone has had a major impact on working mums. "It means you can be totally available wherever you are," she says, "because the worst thing about combining a full time job and children and managing a home is that it takes more days than there are in a week."

What helps then? In terms of what individuals can do, Natalie lists picking a supportive partner who shares the home responsibilities, having family nearby who can help out and having a network of other mums going through similar issues. Plus, she says, it gets easier once the children are in school.

Although she is very much in support of moves towards shared parenting and believes this would help women – indeed her own husband was working flexibly until recently to help out with childcare – she believes the key issue for working mums is affordable childcare.

Working now in Europe, she visits the Nordic countries often and says: "It is extraordinary how far behind we are. Places like Sweden and Denmark see women going back to work after having children as absolutely normal."

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