10 Human Resource Professionals Discuss International Women's Day
This year, for International Women's Day we are celebrating our female authors and showcasing their industry knowledge.
In this article, we asked ten of our HR and L&D authors about their experiences as a woman in business, including what prevailing stereotypes need to be broken, and what advice can be shared with young women entering the world of work.
Dr Julie Hodges - Associate Dean & Professor, Durham University
"IWD is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women from diverse backgrounds, and also for raising continuing need to build a more gender-balanced world. Change is needed.
Gillian Jones - MD, Emerge
"Women’s development is the key part of my business now with the RISE Women’s Development Programme, and so every IWD I do something special for organizations so they can celebrate their women. I try to go to as many companies as I can and present for an hour to their women with no charge but ask them to contribute to my charity. I am patron of Aurora New Dawn who support victims of domestic abuse, violence and stalking so the funds I raise on IWD really help them."
Karen Beaven - Founder, PX Innovations, The IVF Coach
"IWD is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women worldwide. It’s a moment to pause and reflect and show support for the women in our lives and the women who inspire us. It’s actually taken on a new resonance for me since becoming a mother. I read a great quote that said ‘Here’s to strong women! May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.’ It made me stop and think about my daughter and my own responsibility to raise her as a strong independent woman too."
Debbie Mitchell - ID Consultant and Director, Mitchell Palmer Ltd
"IWD is the opportunity to celebrate the continuing development of the role of women in work, education, social responsibility and in life. We've seen amazing progress over the last 70+ years, and the world of work continues to be a place of great opportunities and inspiration for women."
Emma Bridger - MD, People Lab
"IWD is a day to not only celebrate the achievements of women around the world. but also as a reminder of the work we still need to do to achieve gender parity."
Stella Collins - Creative Director, Stellar Learning
"IWD is a day for women to celebrate their successes and the differences in approach compared to the other half of the population. But we shouldn’t really need a special day, because it ought to be the norm. Having said that, I think it’s probably been an element in valuing skills and ways of working that may be different to the methods that the previously male-dominated working world established as a norm."
Ro Gorell - Director, Change Optimised Pty. Ltd, Coach and Change Strategist
"I consider myself lucky enough to live in a country [Australia] that largely supports women’s equality. Celebrating IWD means we give thought to women elsewhere in the world not so fortunate.
It somehow seems strange that we have to focus on one gender to ensure equality. Essentially, I see myself as a human being first, and a woman second. In that sense, we are all equal. Yet society puts different constructs dependent on our gender. IWD challenges us to remember that women still have a long way to go before they are considered equal with men – in the eyes of the law and society."
Ines Wichert - MD, TalUpp
"IWD is a great occasion to celebrate the progress we have made in advancing women’s rights and opportunities. It is also an important reminder that we still have a long way to go. It’s a platform that enables women and men to come together as one voice to advocate for gender equality in all spheres of life across the globe."
Linda Holbeche - Co-Director, The Holbeche Partnership
Author of The Agile Organization
"IWD is a really important marker of how much has been achieved in the case of equality, and how much further there is to travel. Throughout the world, there are fantastic examples of women who have contributed so much and in so many ways to society and yet their achievements are often ignored or sidelined. This day is a way of drawing attention to the collective hopes, aspirations and capabilities of that half of the human race."
Kirsten Edwards - Head of Analytics, Empathix Ltd
Co-author of Predictive HR Analytics
"For me, IWD is a celebration of unity and inclusion. It is a day to honour women across the world and marvel in the rich diversity of talent that exists therein. With so much evidence to suggest we still have a long way to go such as the gender pay gap, the representation of women in leadership roles in government and industry, and inequality of rights and opportunities internationally, I believe it serves as an important reminder of what the world misses out on when we fail to recognise the achievements and capabilities of women and girls."
These influential women not only are experts in the industry of HR and L&D, but also have successfully navigated the working world of business, each living to see their own dreams of success come alive. Discover their journeys and read what advice they have for women entering the world of business for the first time.
Q: What have your experiences been as a woman in business?
I have never let being a woman hold me back in my career. However, in many of the organizations in which I have worked I have witnessed and experienced discrimination between genders – often in terms of promotion. From my experience, women have to work much harder to be promoted in many sectors than men do. Women are still facing prejudice, intolerance and inequality. There is still considerable progress to be made to achieving gender equality and better balance in the workplace.
I left school with no qualifications as my mother was mentally ill, and began work as a secretary in a male-dominated business. This was my first experience of working with men and the banter and bullying was quite difficult to manage. In those days, 25 years ago, there was very little legislation on sex discrimination, so we had to fight for everything. I was bullied badly at work which sapped my confidence. That’s why it’s really important to me to help other women to cope with this. Nowadays I work with many clients and I know how important it is women to demonstrate credibility and gravitas.
When I started my working life in IT in the 80s there appeared to be a good balance of men and women in similar roles in the places I worked, but I gather there is a smaller percentage of women in technical IT roles now which is sad. There are many women in the world of L&D but there are probably still more men in senior roles. Personally, I feel I’ve benefited being a woman in my career because when my children were young it seemed more acceptable for a woman than a man to combine part-time paid work with part-time work with her family – which was what I chose to do. Now in many sectors, both partners seem to have the ability to flex their work/life arrangements. Coming from an all-girl family and attending an all-girls school left me with the idea that there wasn’t anything women couldn’t do because I never strongly experienced a gender bias and that has remained with me and I believe helped me in business.
Like most women, I have experienced discrimination on the basis of my gender. From my early career, where I was asked about my plans for motherhood in an interview, through my corporate career where I was told I would never get a promotion because I didn’t wear the right clothes. That said, I have also not subscribed to stereotyped behaviours or expectations because of my gender. By celebrating my own unique style and eschewing career-enhancing behaviour, I am comfortable being me. Even though I had some tough times in my corporate career, I would advocate taking an opportunistic approach and not getting too attached to one particular outcome. We can’t change the context but we can change how we see it!
My experience of being a woman in the workplace is different from being a woman in business. Women are still less readily seen as business leaders and still only manage to raise a fraction of the capital that men raise for new business ventures.
Q: In what ways have you led change in the workplace?
I have sought to ensure that we recruit diverse cohorts to our MBA programmes and seek to achieve a balance of genders. Through my research, I have published articles to raise awareness of the challenges faced by middle-aged women in the workplace and professional women in Saudi Arabia.
One of the things I’m very passionate about is changing the perception of Human Resources and the way the profession is typically viewed and the service it provides. I did this at River Island when I set up the commercial styling venture ‘Style Studio’ at the same time as leading the HR function. I wanted to show that HR can be directly commercial and contribute with a much broader remit when empowered to do so. This came from a focus on wanting to deliver an unforgettable experience for customers.
Earlier in my career, when I worked in-house, I was never afraid to call out behaviours. More latterly, I have worked with organizations on unconscious bias, delivering workshops and training. The benefit of being ‘external’ is that you can give feedback which could be pretty career-limiting of you worked inside that company.
I’ve tried to bring some new ideas and practice to the work we did in research. I’ve helped develop some thinking and practice in organisation development and had the opportunity to put this into practice in several leadership positions. I have always thoroughly disliked restructurings that left people without jobs so always tried to find a better solution. This also prompted me to research, with colleagues, how you can get “the people bit” right when it comes to change, mergers, etc.
At the time of the first publication of Predictive HR Analytics, the field was a lot smaller than it is now. Fast forward 3 years, and with the 2nd edition coming out this month I am delighted to see how much the field has moved on. Many organisations have people analytics specialists in-house and many consultancies have popped up. We have barely scratched the surface, but I believe the HR profession continues to evolve to be more and more credible, strategic and evidence-based. It is not just me, but I am delighted to be a part of this big change.
Q: What's the biggest risk you've taken during your career?
I moved from a career in the corporate world to one in academia. It meant taking a reduction in salary and benefits and entering a world where my previous 20 years of experience in organizations in the private and public sector meant very little. However, the opportunity to teach students from across the globe is such a privilege, as is working in an environment where learning is an everyday part of the culture.
Standing up for another woman who had been verbally sexually abused at work. This led to me being asked to leave – that outcome ended with me starting my own business.
I think the biggest risk I have taken was deciding to quit my HR Director role at River Island and go public with the fact that I had a breakdown in 2017 and that this was connected to multiple failed IVF cycles. It was a really hard thing to do and at the time when I was thinking about it, I got a lot of mixed advice. Some people felt very strongly that it would destroy my career if I was so open about it and that I might not be able to get another job and certainly not one at the same level.
It was an incredibly tough time and, ultimately, I decided that this was something I needed to share. In doing so, it provided me with an opportunity to re-shape my life. I made a commitment to myself to only do work I love with people who inspire me. To this day I stand by that. It was a big risk but one that led to me setting up two businesses of my own through which I’m now in a position to help other people. My vision is to help people stay happy, healthy and stress-free at the same time as building their careers. This is so rewarding and particularly so with my IVF Coach business where I help people navigate IVF at the same time as maintaining balance and achieving success in the rest of their life, too.
Moving to Spain 18 months ago. My business was thriving by my husband and I were ready for an adventure so decided to take the risk of running the business from another country. It’s been great, my team in the UK are fabulous and we work really well remotely. It’s helped us grow our associate base and we’re starting to expand to working more in Europe. At the moment we don’t know what the impact of Brexit will be, but nobody does, so we’re just going to work with what we’ve got and take advantage of all the opportunities that arise.
Q: What stereotypes/assumptions of women in business would you like to see broken?
One of the first questions I get asked as an independent self-employed person is ‘do you have children?’. There is an assumption that because I stepped off the corporate ladder, I must have had children that needed me to go part-time. I don’t have children; I just didn’t want to work in a corporation anymore (and sometimes I want to watch TV in the afternoon, and not be at work!) I hear a lot of assumptions and see a focus on providing flexibility and opportunity for working mums. Whilst I wholeheartedly support that, I also support a wider concept of choice. I believe that we shouldn’t have to have reason or justification for wanting to have a better blend between the work we do and the lives we choose.
I also long for the day when we don’t have to read that a major organisation has appointed its ‘FIRST FEMALE CEO’ – and instead we can just celebrate the appointment of a brilliant new CEO! The fact that we have to shout out about gender suggests that there is still inequality, and I hope that in the not too distant future, we are no longer singling out a gender as the qualifier, but rather recognising that all organisations take the responsibility to simply appoint the very best candidate for the job.
We need to get rid of the view that either you have to be superwoman (with several children, nannies, a cook and so on) or a selfish, single woman who does nothing but focus on her career. We also need to get rid of the view that to succeed women need to be harder, work longer, and be much tougher than men.
I’d like to break down assumptions on capability associated with gender. Everyone is so unique that we can’t ever presume to know what they can or can’t do or what’s right for them based purely on the fact that they might be a woman or that they have children.
I’d also like to challenge the perception that women find it harder to get on with each other and are more likely to stab each other in the back. This is something I’ve heard on several occasions. Truth is, strong women support other women. We know that there are enough opportunities and space for us all to ‘win’ and succeed. I’ve honestly never had to dim anyone else’s light in order for my own to shine and I’ve worked with and alongside a lot of other women who have delivered outstanding results and are a shining example of this.
It may seem peculiar, but I’m not convinced all women want to break the glass ceiling. It’s more of an assumption about the world of work than about women. Not everyone wants to (or can) lead, and many of us prefer to collaborate and work together to achieve success rather than necessarily lead from the top.
Stereotypes about any group of people, positive or negative, are not useful because they take away from all the amazing things an individual has to offer. No two of us are alike and if you looked around the room in any team meeting you will all have had a different personal and professional path that led you there. So surely it is worth listening to what others have to say because it can’t always be the same as what is in your head. I think that is something to celebrate. I know we can’t help but put people in categories, but we can try to be aware that we do it and do everything we can to stop it impacting the way we behave towards them.
Q: Which women inspire you?
On IWD, it goes without saying that my mum is an inspiration. She’s not the CEO of a major business, or an industry gamechanger. She had her family very young, but she also had the courage to go back to college as a mature student, get a qualification, and work in a vocation that she still loves today. She’s not rich, she’s not renowned in her field – but she developed a career, balanced family and life challenges whilst working, learnt continuously, built a strong reputation for the quality of her work, and still (despite the call of retirement) loves her work today. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all say that as we near the end of our careers?
Marie Colvin who fearlessly went to war-torn countries to report on atrocities and let the world know the inhuman destruction war causes. Also Edith Morley, suffragette and England’s first female professor. Finally, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte – who initially had to publish under male names to get work into print.
Personally, I was inspired by Kim Gordon, who was the bass player in Sonic Youth. She was a key influencer in the ‘riot grrl’ movement which was a feminist punk movement, and inspired me to pick up a bass guitar and join a band.
How to choose? Personally, my maternal grandmother was a great inspiration to me growing up. She was always so cheery and easy to talk to. She had an iron will and never let things get her down. Sadly no longer with us, she still inspires me subconsciously in my determination and drive.
Professionally, my business partner never ceases to inspire me with her ability to absorb many pieces of data and work through the hard stuff until completed. Her ability to juggle the business as well as support her family is both heart-warming and affirming. She reminds me of what my mum must have done for me.
My co-author Gillian also inspires me with her confidence and self-belief to just be herself and trust her own ability. From the first time I started working with her, I have never ceased to be amazed at her capacity to work and deliver.
There are so many women who inspire me. It’s not only the female leaders who we see on the global stage such as Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel or female CEOs such as Carolyn McCall or Emma Walmsley. While these visible role models are very important, I take most of my inspiration from women around me. There are too many to list but here are two examples: Philina Toiny, Principal at Cap Gemini and outgoing President at PWN London, for her leadership and commitment to women’s career advancement, and Riham Satti, CEO at MeVitae, for taking an idea straight out of university and boldly and tenaciously turning it into a fabulous business.
As of today, I would say that I’m inspired by those brave UK politicians from Labour and Conservative parties – women and men – who’ve put the UK’s interests ahead of party politics to form an Independent Group rather than simply go with the flow of polarised and toxic argument. These are leaders I can admire and I wish them every success. We need people with some moral backbone in every kind of leadership position rather than self-serving grandstanders or cowards and it’s great to see that there is some real leadership around when it’s most needed.
Q: What advice would you give to women entering the world of business today?
Stay authentic. Please don’t feel that you have to become a superwoman. Be your best you, and that will take you far.
Be bold, courageous and confident and do what you can to make a positive difference.
Be authentic, follow your purpose and passion, know your values and believe in yourself. You can be anything you want to be providing you know what that is, want it enough and are prepared to work for it. Work on gravitas and projection and don’t wash the tea towels!
Be prepared to put the work in and craft a reputation for yourself based on a good track record of results and relationship building. Prioritise your self-care so that you can operate from a position of excellence and avoid compromising your self-care in exchange for short term results. Don’t be afraid to shine and to be uniquely you, you don’t need to imitate anyone and don’t be afraid if you stuff things up occasionally, it’s all part of the process. Surround yourself with people who’ve got your back. People who will support you and who can help you achieve your goals. You don’t need to put anyone else down in order for you to do well so support other people, work together and celebrate progress in whatever form it takes. Be mindful of your energy levels and pick up on the things that bring you energy and the things that take energy away from you. Bring the things that give you energy closer to you and find a way to distance yourself or limit your exposure to the things that drain you. Be ambitious and set yourself some targets. Then, when you know which direction you want to progress in, find a mentor who’s been there and done it so you have some support and guidance for your journey. Don’t hold back on investing in your own development. You need to own it! Be kind. Be bold. Be brave, and most importantly, have the confidence to be you!
The business world is a dynamic place even more so than when I entered it back in the ‘80s. My advice would be to be clear about what’s important to you. Be yourself, but at the same time, recognise you’re working in an organization that has certain unwritten rules. Make sure you can reconcile these rules with what you value. Finally, remember it’s people that matter. Don’t become so attached to a job that you lose sight of what really matters.
My advice to young women is to look left and right of their main role or area of expertise and to try out new things. Once you have mastered your main role, look out for that extra project that you can take on in your organisation or outside of work to tackle a different challenge, gain breadth of experience and build your network. It will also help you gain confidence that you can take anything you choose. In a volatile and disruptive world, being good at just one or two things is no longer good enough to succeed in the long-term. We all need breadth of experience and be agile.
Be curious, excited and fill yourself with the possibility of contributing to a better world, in whichever capacity you choose. Learn about and try to accept yourself and others – strengths as well as weaknesses. Push yourself to learn, and also have fun. Take a few risks – what’s the worst thing that can happen? Work out what’s important to you at each stage and make sure you build your resources and networks so that with luck you can truly have it all.
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