Project Description

Potential solutions to many of the progressive issues of gender diversity

The Business Magazine and a number of the proud sponsors of the Women in Business ‘WIB’ initiative – Taylor Made Computer Solutions, Barclays, Blake Morgan, Clarify and Windsor Vehicle Leasing – and a selection of winners and finalists from the WiB Awards 2016, recently gathered together for a roundtable discussion at the Oakley Hall Hotel on a cold January morning.

The aim of Women in Business, apart from celebrating the success and achievement of role models at the annual awards ceremony, is to explore ideas, concerns, and …..

Perception differences – where does it all start?

Kath Shimmin, partner at Blake Morgan and one of the roundtable sponsors, highlighted a research study which had headlined in the news that morning and concluded that girls started to see themselves as less talented than boys from as early as the age of six years old. The study by US researchers on 400 children found that five-year-old boys and girls initially perceived no differences in their gender, but just one year on, cultural stereotypes had already begun to show.

“Women need to believe they are ‘worth it’ – how can we encourage women to ask for more when such stereotypes are ingrained from such an early age?”

The work:life balance issue

Claire Rowe, chief executive at Shoosmiths, noted that the work:life balance was probably the biggest issue out there for women, carrying the most negative perceptions about leadership positions; ie the need for women to make too many compromises as a consequence.

“It can be done though, and you can have a successful personal and professional life; one is not exclusive of the other. There is a solution to every problem, as we have no doubt all discovered round this table … but work:life balance is probably the ‘scary box’ that puts most women off”

Nicola McQueen, executive director at Capita, agreed that initially she too had been put off by the negative perceptions of leadership positions, and had avoided a few promotions on account of her three small children.

“I’ve learned to plan my working day around home life … not the other way 

round. So, a few days a week I arrive at my desk by 7.30am in London, but I’ll make sure that I leave ahead of the traffic, to be back to help the children with bathtime and bedtime routines …. because those are the hours which impact least upon my family.”

Aly Taylor, HR director at Taylor Made, pointed out that there were no female role models at the time when she started to climb the corporate ladder, so she thought that she had to do everything herself. However, her husband was very supportive and was able to work flexibly to help with the childcare, until eventually they could afford childcare that allowed her to work more and to give some space for some ‘grown up time’.

McQueen: “I had to quickly get very ‘ruthless’ with my time – a meeting would go into the diary for 30 minutes, rather than the previous ‘standard’ of 60 minutes.”

Laura Davis, managing director of Reality HR, agreed wholeheartedly with McQueen on the subject of time management and the organisation of the working day: “We’re always looking to attract returning mums; there are some amazingly talented women out there. We allow them to manage their own days, so they often start work at 6am answering emails, before going off and doing the school run, and then coming in to work. The ethos remains – ‘My family comes first’ – but the job gets done just as well.” 

Eleanor Bradley, COO at Nominet, noted: “We need to encourage everyone, women and men, to work flexibly and achieve a work:life balance. Until men also feel able to take leave and work around their family commitments without being judged, it will always be harder for women to do this.” 


Aly Taylor: HR director, Taylor Made Computer Solutions

Brenda Long: Chairman and partner, family law, Blandy & Blandy

Eleanor Bradley: Chief operating officer, Nominet

Claire Rowe: Chief executive, Shoosmiths

Kate Collings: Head of support team for South Coast, Surrey, and Sussex, Barclays

Kath Shimmin: Partner, Blake Morgan

Lorraine Collis: CEO, ELM Group

Laura Davis: Managing director, Reality HR

Mark Akehurst: Head of business unit, Clarify

Nicola McQueen: Executive director, Capita

Philip Smith: Managing director, Windsor Vehicle Leasing

Tamsin Napier-Munn: Campaigns manager, The Business Magazine, chaired the discussion

Aly Taylor
Brenda Long
Philip Smith
Lorraine Collis

Men and women – workplace differences

Tamsin Napier-Munn questioned the roundtable as to whether they thought women could push themselves forwards effectively, or if they tended to over-compensate? 

In response, Mark Akehurst, head of business unit at Clarify, cited the example of his organisation’s female CEO Claire Edmunds, a past winner of the Women In Business Woman of the Year SME award. “Is Claire a traditional CEO? Well, nothing comes before her family, but it’s all about balance in her case. She has a very supportive team around her, whom she relies upon and who in turn, rely upon her … but it’s not about gender, it’s about the skill set. Claire leads from the front, she runs the organisation, she sets the agenda, and she establishes the tone, so it all works very effectively in our organisation … and as we scale, balance will remain a priority – and this is not just the preserve of the leadership team, at all levels parental responsibility is respected whether this is mum taking time off to care for a sick child or for one of the dad’s who coaches the football team to leave early on Thursday afternoons.” 

Kate Collings, regional head of support for Barclays, picked up the theme of culture in large companies agreeing that it needed to be driven from the top-down, but noting that this was a slower process in larger organisations, as well as remarking on the difference in male-versus-female working attitudes: “Financial services has historically been a very male-dominated industry. There are a lot of females employed at operational level, but this percentage starts to reduce very quickly as you look further up the corporate ladder. Yes, maybe organisations could support females better, especially as statistics show that men tend to be more competitive and confident and put themselves forward for a role, whereas the reverse is true for most females.”

Shimmin agreed with this observation of male versus female ambition in the workplace: “It’s interesting – when a man is complimented and told he has done a good job, he tends to go ‘Yeah’, whereas a woman will respond ‘Ah, but I didn’t do this …’, or ‘I didn’t do that’. So, it’s often a question of different management styles; for example, praising women by saying, ‘you were as good as (or better than) your peers’.”

Rowe followed up on this observation, asking the roundtable: “How do we ensure those conversations are taking place?” She noted that men would apply for jobs, whereas women tended to need to be asked to do so. In her own case, the spur was thinking “I could do a better job than him”.

Davis remarked that this was the reason for having talent programmes, so that organisations would not have to wait for women to apply – they would already have been pre-identified for a certain role; “We can then say, in two years’ time, that’s your goal. It’s a change in mindset.”

Lorraine Collis, CEO of Elm Group, agreed with the concept, but pointed out that it was not possible to push females all the way up the corporate ladder – the desire and push had to come from within at some point. Rowe interjected that she agreed, but that it was all about building confidence early on in a female’s career.

Claire Rowe
Kath Shimmin
Mark Akehurst
Eleanor Bradley

Enlightened working practices

Bradley referenced research that suggests, “men are promoted based on potential, whereas women are promoted based upon performance”, and asked the roundtable how to pick away at those stereotypes, which prompted a lively debate. 

Davis suggested that to change perceptions, we should research what other countries had successfully achieved, and build upon this in the UK. Scandinavian countries, in particular, had been very successful in promoting female leadership in the workplace, and in introducing flexible working and parental leave for both women and men. 

McQueen added that it was as important to see matters from a male perspective, there being a lot of expectation around men in roles, some of which made it more difficult for them to be as flexible as maybe they would like to be? Hence, in order to have shared responsibility, as per the Scandinavian model, enlightened men were just as important as women in workplace.

Changing the mind-set amongst youngsters

Napier-Munn moved the discussion on to what additional measures might be required to promote equality in the workplace; for example, would targets and quotas be a good idea?

Taylor disagreed. “I think it is always best to get promoted to a position on your own merit.” However, she went on to make the point that her generation now had the opportunity to alter perceptions. “We can change the way our children think – already, they don’t perceive colour or gender as a difference unlike many of the older generations. We can set an example by our actions for our children, we can be trailblazers … and I think everything will be a lot better by the time they start to challenge for board positions in 20 or 30 years’ time.”

Shimmin agreed that the ‘Millennial debate’ would at some point overshadow the gender debate. “Roll forward 30 years, and gender won’t be an issue any longer, because it simply won’t occur to the younger generation, and they probably won’t be doing businesses in large, heavily managed corporate structures. The companies we see as being male preserves now, won’t be the same companies in the future.”

The conversation moved on to the attitudes of children. Rowe noted that her daughter was very confident and prepared to argue her corner having seen her mother succeed in the workplace, while Taylor remarked on the difference with the way the younger generation is now approaching the job market; her son is finishing university, but is being very careful about where he is applying for jobs, researching employers who treat their staff well and fairly.

Society’s view of men

Keeping in tune with the theme of the perceptions, Akehurst wondered whether society as a whole had failed to embrace the concept of men being equally responsible for their children in the workplace? 

“I drop my kids off at school every morning and I love it. My wife is a primary school teacher and unable to do so, whilst I am lucky to work for a very forward-thinking company where such arrangements are encouraged. However, there still remains the view, among some of the school mums, that this should be my wife’s job. I reckon that most men would love to be able to do what I do, but it’s generally not that well accepted.”

Shimmin accepted that there were double standards operating in society, with some women failing to advance the cause. She gave the example of the time she hired a nanny: “If I had a pound for everytime I was told ‘How lucky you are’, or ‘How can you trust somebody else with your children?’… I don’t think many men would have had to put up with that. Why is it that men can organise their work:life balance, but women can’t?” Taylor agreed whole-heartedly with this observation, having experienced exactly the same reaction herself.

Kate Collings
Nicola McQueen
Laura Davies
Tamsin Napier-Munn

The importance of ‘returners’ 

McQueen highlighted the importance of succession planning from an HR perspective, with women progressing at the same rate as men in their 30s, but upon their return from maternity leave (hence the term ‘returner’), it was common for them to find that life had changed and they lacked confidence. McQueen admitted that from a personal point of view she had initially found it very tough to come back to work after her maternity leave; having missed nine months, she felt she was ‘not worthy’ to contribute to discussions, and that the world had moved on in her absence.

Taylor suggested the wider use of ‘Keeping in Touch days’, whereby returners are invited to company events, seminars, training, and generally made to feel involved. 

Shimmin expanded on this: “You don’t stop being part of the team when on maternity leave. If there are any internal mutterings, I ask the relevant people how they would like their wives or sisters to be treated … which tends to prompt a different answer. It can’t be just a management exercise, it has to be a whole team buy-in.”

Collis agreed: “It’s all about ownership – it’s not just a ‘tick the box’ exercise. It’s about accepting that everybody is different; some people need a bit of a push but you can’t just keep going through the motions. The benefits include absolute commitment to the business; I’ve seen it with one of my team, a returner, who is now one of our best advocates and if anybody is concerned about returning after maternity leave, I just direct them to her.”

McQueen noted that human resource departments already had processes in place for long-term sickness, but that such processes were often lacking for those returning from maternity leave. 

Rowe expanded upon this, saying that conversations had to revolve around, “where do you want to get to, and how do you want to get there?”, rather than simply parachuting returners back into their previous roles.

Bradley agreed with the need for good management for returners, but was nervous about aligning maternity leave with long-term sick leave. She went on to make the point that, ”Flexible and part-time workers always tend to do more than required because they appreciate the flexibility; but there is a two-way relationship with business when they are part-time so it is your duty of care as a manager to set the agenda.”

Shimmin picked up on real risk of losing people by failing to adequately manage them back to work. She also made the observation that, “A man will tend to tell you about his job description, whereas a woman will tell you what she does. Men aspire for promotion whereas women are more concerned about doing a good job….so the organisation structure tends not to encourage women to seek promotion.”

Flexible working hours

Brenda Long, chairman of Blandy & Blandy, expanded on the point of senior people setting an example for flexible working in the organisation, using her own company by way of reference. “A number of our female partners work four days a week, but the men won’t do it; they are concerned it will affect their career progression in the firm.”

Davis stressed the need for management by objectives, not by hours, to counter this perception and to reduce this culture of needing to be seen at work to be perceived as working. She went on to make the point that shared parental leave would drive different behaviours and reduce the pressure on men to conform to old stereotypes. 

McQueen then raised the interesting point that the way jobs are advertised is still very old-fashioned, with roles usually carrying the description of the daily working hours (eg 9am – 5.30pm) rather than the working week required (eg 37.5 hours per week). Given that the majority of the roles are flexible, employers should likewise be flexible and transparent right from the outset.

Role models

In bringing the discussion to a close, Napier-Munn asked the roundtable, who they felt to be an exceptional role model to Women in Business and why?

Both Davis and Collis cited Nicola Horlick as a role model, being a woman who managed to normalise so many taboos and stereotypes, such as the need to power-dress whilst building a multi-million pound asset management business and coping with an eventful personal life. 

Shimmin demurred: “I worry that role models such as Nicola Horlick could be perceived as unattainable and difficult to relate to for most women. I prefer my role models to be closer to home; for example, the partner who put me forward for promotion 20 years ago is my role model. Being able to see that little bit further down the career path was incredibly useful.”