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Helene Martin Gee talks to Workingmums.co.uk about the expanding work of the Pink Shoe Club, an organisation designed to link women in business up across sectors and generations.
Helene Martin Gee set up the Pink Shoe Club in 2007 as a way to bring women from different sectors, backgrounds and cultures together. Having created the Hays Executive Inclusion Network and Leadership Programme a year earlier in her role as Head of Government Relations and Diversity, she could see that there were many women's groups in sectors such as IT and banking, but there was no group that crossed the sectors. Given that many of the issues faced were similar, she thought a more collaborative approach might work.
As a Parliamentary adviser – she is currently Chief Adviser to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship, which she helped establish – she could also see that there was a lot of positive work being done on female career progression which was not getting shared publicly.
She aimed high – a founding patron was Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan – and she is now planning to expand the network across the country and internationally.
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The Pink Shoe Club is mostly based around events, including those aimed at young women which seek to widen their options by showing them different career paths and highlights successful women who have taken them. "Often those who take part say they have met people they would not normally encounter," says Helene. "People tend to only mix with people who are in their sector, although the issues for women at the top are often the same and there are areas where they can share ideas and see what different sectors are doing. A good initiative might be very established in one sector, but hasn't been tried in another."
The women who come to events are from a broad swathe of the working world – from academics and artists to finance experts and lawyers. They include those from public and private sector organisations. There are also events for entrepreneurs. The name of the organisation is a reflection, says Helene, that "it is okay to be glamorous, but that does not take away from the fact that women are there to do a serious job".
More and more men are now attending the events too, for instance, boys from inner city schools are invited to enterprise events and get to ask senior businesswomen questions about their jobs and see positive female role models in action. "We realised that there is no point is just talking to ourselves," says Helene.
The events range from enterprise forums to leadership forums on career development to 'pink sky thinking' events to identify the best next step for progress in creating more diverse organisations from top to bottom. There are also events which are based around lifestyle issues.
Many of those who come to the enterprise forum events are micro-business owners. Helene says a lot of publicity around enterprise tends to focus on making it big and becoming a multi-millionaire. Many women at the forums don't want that, though. "We very much want to give the message that it is okay not to want to be a massive business," she says.
The Club also offers peer to peer mentoring. "Women can get help from people who have been there and done it before – and if they can't help they will link people up with someone who can," says Helene.
She says it is vital that role models talk honestly about their rise to the top. "We are really afraid of the 'f' word – failure," she says. "We encourage people in business to talk about things that haven't worked and what they have learnt. We tend to live in a society where everything is focused on the positive, but it is much more powerful if someone speaks honestly about how they have overcome hurdles and mistakes."
The Club has recently expanded its operations from London to Manchester by linking up with like-minded women's groups already established there and held a couple of events in Liverpool last year – one in Panoramic 34, the UK's tallest restaurant, which was run by the restaurant's co-owner. It is looking to expand to the South West, Birmingham, Wales and the North East. It has also hooked up with a women in leadership group based in Paris and Brussels which is expanding to Italy and with a Washington-based group.
"It's about inspiring women, particularly the next generation. The idea is that the Pink Shoe leaves footprints," says Helene.