Women in business: the importance of authenticity

How can women succeed in male-dominated professions? Is it necessary to act more like the male stereotype or can they make it in their own style, staying true to themselves? That was the focus of a women in business roundtable at the House of Lords last week, organised by Forward Ladies.

It included speakers from the world of IT as well as from HSBC and the Institute of Directors.

Margaret Totten, Managing Director, IA Cubed, said she was virtually sent to Coventry after she announced she was pregnant at her corporate job. She faced demotion on her return to work, but then she started working for IA Cubed and its CEO gave her confidence. She told how the company had taken on the old boys’ network in IT in Scotland and had dared to be different.  They went against all the advice, she said, promoting women to the senior management team and have now won respect from their peers by staying true to themselves. They have been working with Microsoft to teach girls to code so they can redress the gender balance in the IT pipeline.

Clare Barclay, General Manager SMS&P, Microsoft UK, said the company has a positive bias towards women as they are so underrepresented in the industry. She finds that women are no less aspirational in their careers than men, but lack confidence. Microsoft does a lot of mentoring. Young women are more open about their anxieties than men, who tend to show a lot of bravado, she said. Both require coaching to learn to be themselves in the workplace, but the focus for each has to be slightly different – increasing female confidence and toning down male bravado. Having a mix of different perspectives was definitely good for business, stated Barclay, adding that she was proud of the work Microsoft did with its DigiGirlz project in schools.

James Maunder, Director of Information and Digital Services at the Institute of Directors, said telling employees to bring their true selves to work was liberating for all staff. Many men felt constricted by stereotypes too, he said, for instance, the idea that they all loved golf. The IOD believes that work is an activity not a place and Maunder said it was important for managers to lead by example. He made a point of working at least one day from home a week, for instance. The key was to change the work culture. IT helped change culture, but culture also contributed to how IT has evolved. The role of managers has evolved, he said, and their role was now more about mentoring rather than micro-managing.

Griselda Togobo, Managing Director of Forward Ladies, said she had given up on waiting for workplace culture to change since that could take some time and she felt women needed to make their own opportunities. “Diversity is important, but companies will revert back if they come under pressure,” she said. She coached a lot of women entrepreneurs and worked with companies who truly recognised the added value women bring.

A questioner asked how companies dealt with claims that their diversity programmes meant they were biased in favour of women. Baroness Warsi, who chaired the event, said women were not asking for exceptional treatment, just parity with men.

An audience member also raised the issue of how to include more men in diversity events like the roundtable and how to ensure that it was seen as something of importance for all employees.

Barclay said Microsoft spoke about the business benefits of diversity in general. IT had a low representation of women so to reflect its customer base better it needed more women. With regard to recruitment, the focus was on having a more diverse list of people to choose from and ensuring women were represented on the interview panel, but the company would still always hire the right person for the job.

Another speaker, James Cliffe, Head of Business Banking UK HSBC Commercial Banking, said women employees in the company had to be developed for leadership roles. It was about taking a leap of faith and widening the pool of people so that the same talented women weren’t being tapped on the shoulder for job opportunities all the time because of the need for greater diversity in senior management.

Gender pay audits

All the speakers were in favour of gender pay audits. Maunder said he would prefer if the data was anonymous and said pay transparency was a good thing in general.  It threw the spotlight on issues such as the pay disparity between people who had been with a company for a long time and seen their pay rise by small increments and those who had come in from outside on higher salaries.  The disparity between young and more experienced staff doing the same roles was also mentioned. Margaret Totten said the audits made the issue a talking point and if people were not challenged, she said, things would not change.

Barclay said it focused managers’ attention on ensuring women who came back from maternity leave did not fall behind in the pay stakes.  Baroness Warsi said gender pay audits held a mirror up to a company.

The issue of support for small businesses to cover maternity leave was also raised by a woman who herself ran a small business and found it difficult to deal with. The speakers agreed there needed to be more support for SMEs, but Maunder said it was “fundamentally depressing that we are still talking about women having babies as a challenge” since it was a fact of life. There was a challenge for small businesses, but everyone needed to take personal responsibility for unconscious bias, he said. More also needed to be done to encourage men to take parental leave to change the stereotypes around family leave. That kind of social change took time, though. However, Baroness Warsi said she felt the conversations around women and work were changing and progress was being made.

“We are all leaders in this space,” said Maunder, adding that people could do a lot on a personal, day to day basis. He felt, for instance, that he could do more to push for gender diversity from the IOD’s suppliers.

Totten was optimistic that young people were more egalitarian. She said women needed to stop judging each other. “Every time we judge another woman for what we think is the wrong decision we should stop ourselves. That just makes the problem we face much worse,” she said.  Barclay was also optimistic about younger generations. They were building their networks in different ways and inspiring others, she said.

Cliffe said the pressures on small businesses needed support from big business to give them the space to sort out issues such as pressure over maternity leave. “As leaders we create the environment,” he said.

Baroness Warsi said government could help more as could banks, who could provide buffers for SMEs facing extra pressures, whatever these were. “If we are genuinely committed to supporting small businesses when they have extra pressures that is where big businesses can come in,” she said.

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