International Women's Day Author Q+A
For International Women's Day (IWD) 2021, we questioned a small selection of our female authors about their experiences as a woman in business, as well as their hopes for the future.
Meet the authors
|Rita Clifton is the co-founder of business and brand consultancy BrandCap, with offices in New York, Hong Kong and London. She is a regular commentator across all media, including the BBC, and is a member of the UK Government's Sustainable Development Commission. Clifton is the author of Love Your Imposter, which shows you how to take on your imposter self and use it as a driver to come out stronger.|
|Jackie Fast is an award-winning entrepreneur and business leader who has worked with some of the world's biggest brands, including Formula1, Virgin and Shell. An advocate for collaboration, Jackie invests in and helps teams create global partnerships as co-founder of Sandbox Studios. Her book Rule Breaker is a manifesto for a new wave of leadership.|
|Jenni Field is an expert in communications running her own consultancy, Redefining Communications. Jenni was the 2020 President of CIPR, and previously featured in Inspiring Workplaces top 101 influencers in employee engagement. Influential Internal Communication publishes in April 2021, presenting a clear, adaptable methodology that will help readers understand, diagnose and fix their own communication challenges.|
|Michelle Parry-Slater is an award-winning L&D professional, and founder of Kairos Modern Learning, an L&D consultancy specialising in driving a shift from traditional courses to the best of digital, social and face-to-face workplace learning. Michelle is the author of The Learning and Development Handbook, a practical guide for fellow L&D professionals.|
Q: What does IWD mean to you?
To me, IWD is both a celebration of women making a difference around the word – and being recognized for it – as well as a powerful, shared campaigning moment to draw attention to things we all still need to do to address inequities and inequality. I have certainly connected with some amazing women at IWD events.
|It’s a day to celebrate women. Quite frankly we should have a whole 365 days, but I’ll settle for just the one – for now.|
For me, it’s a day of celebration. As a female business owner, it’s important to me to support other women and raise the profile of women in business.
International Women's Day is important in all aspects of my life - as a mother of two daughters and a son, as a volunteer for Girlguiding, as a woman in business, as a sister, daughter, colleague and friend. I often talk to my children and my Guides about the need for equity, not equality. Until women have equity in what is still a man's world, there is a need for International Women's Day to remind all, men and women, that we still have a way to go. Celebration of IWD, not just on 8th March but over the whole month gives an opportunity to raise awareness which gives rise to conversations that can help shift the dial.
Q: What have been your experiences as a woman in business?
How long have you got?! Actually, the situation of women in business has generally changed for the better – at least in many parts of the world. More open-mindedness about how people structure their working lives, more recognition that the old models of business culture like command and control and the language of warfare don’t work well in a transparent digital world, more protection against discrimination and bullying. One of the great joys about being able to run organizations is that you can create the type of culture you want to see, and help people of all kinds to develop. And it’s great to see much greater awareness that more diversity means better business performance as well as a more balanced and pleasant workplace culture.
I love being a woman in business. Of course, I have been overlooked and undervalued like most women in my career, but that has made my success that much sweeter. The challenges of being a woman in business meant I had to forge my own path – professionally breaking the old rules of business along the way. That experience has made me stronger, smarter and ultimately better than those naysayers – so I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
Varied! I have never felt that is an issue but in recent years, as I have become more senior and more opinionated, I have definitely had experiences that I didn’t expect. There have been conversations that I know would not have happened if I was a man; being ‘told off’ for having an opinion with the caveat that I’m a ‘good person’ on more than one occasion is what has made me realize there is more to be done – and me being me, I already have plans in place to explore this in 2021.
|For most of my career, I have worked in the People Profession in HR or L&D roles. There are a high proportion of women in the profession, however, it seems true in many places many senior roles have been held by men. Not always, but often in my career, when women have been appointed into senior HR roles they are not taken as seriously as men, nor is the profession taken as seriously as other senior roles - finance, operations, etc. I have seen that strong women in senior roles who make their voice heard have been known (largely by men) as 'ball busters' meaning they are tough and assertive. This was never a descriptor of their male counterparts who displayed similar behaviours. The idea that my daughters need to be almost 'beyond male' in their behaviours to get on in the business world is unacceptable. And vice versa, my rugby playing gym loving son is tough, but has the kindest heart. All our children and colleagues have the right to be themselves and be counted for what they contribute and bring, rather than modify their behaviours to fit a perceived stereotype. All people need to be aware of the effects stereotyping, boxing people in, and toxic behaviours have on productivity, employee experience and business cultures. Where I have seen women thrive is when they are held aloft for their skills. I promote this approach and work with people who do the same, whatever gender.|
Q: In your opinion, why do organizations struggle to abolish gender bias and inequality?
The old structures of business (and organizations of many types) were geared towards more formal working structures and hours, and towards presenteeism. Habit and fear of change have made it difficult for some organizations to break those moulds (at least one positive impact of the COVID-19 crisis have been to make organizations re-think what’s possible). And I think the old biases about what people think make a good leader – and what a ‘central casting’ leader should look like – get in the way of promoting new types of talent.
Many organizations still have the pale, male, stale cohort running the show. Sadly it’s not in their best interest to create equality, and even if it was, they have spent a lifetime of doing things a different way – it’s very hard to turn that ship around. But their time is coming to an end. For those who aren’t retiring, many who are reluctant to change are being pushed out – with a staggering record number of CEO departures last year. I believe someday soon we won’t have to argue about this, as the future generation of leaders value equality and their businesses will be built on this foundation.
There are lots of issues that are interconnected here. It’s a combination of generational differences, societal pressure and balance of power. We have made great progress but there is always more to be done.
I believe that organizations struggle around gender bias because it is not just within business that the inequalities are a problem. People don't spend all their time at work, they are not a product only of their work life. Thus they bring into work their upbringing, their conscious and unconscious bias, their lived experience, their opinions read in a less than scrupulous newspaper, their fears and the manifestation of those fears in their behaviours. Therefore there is only so far an organization can go to abolish inequality without addressing the organization's place in society. This is not to say that businesses are not culpable and shouldn't take responsibility - we spend a lot of time at work after all. In my opinion, organisations have to actively promote working practices which actively promote a fairer, more balanced, kinder society. The discerning customer will expect this.
Q: How do you think businesses (and/or individuals) can tackle workplace inequality and gender bias?
We certainly have to make the right practical, cultural changes to recruitment and work patterns that we know are needed to ensure the kind of diversity and inclusivity we all need to see – we know from the studies that these changes mean more effectiveness in business impact as well as being the right, fair and human thing to do. We also need to ensure we have enough role models and champions for new ways of working. That means new types of leaders, who more closely reflect the people we serve and behave with empathy – that’s both required and a fundamental need in doing good, sustainable business in the future.
It is very simple, start hiring people that look different to you. Now that businesses have been forced to work remotely there is even less excuse; employees no longer need to come from your postcode. Diversity in business drives profitability – it just makes business sense. It’s embarrassing that some old-style leaders are so slow to make this change.
Ensuring processes allow for fair and balanced chances is important. It has to be the right person for the role but it’s about equal chances and things need to be in place to check bias. I know from my experience with my clients that organizations can change. I’ve seen changes where there are both male and female interviewers for every single hire. Bringing other people into the interview process that you trust that have a different perspective to you is also helpful. I firmly believe your team should have skills and views that complement each other but allow for challenge and growth too. We don’t want to hire people who are the same as us – that doesn’t help us!
There are things any organization can do to support a shift, much of which focuses on culture and organisation development - zero tolerance of 'banter' including a no-blame calling out culture, better and fairer recruitment processes, crafting new company values to make a stand against bias and inequality of all kinds, and then living true to those company values. The struggle is real, but just because it is difficult does not mean organisations should ignore it and only tackle the easy stuff for an organisation to have long term sustainability.
Q: What advice would you give to women entering the world of business today?
Firstly, understand yourself and what drives you. What are your strengths, values and goals? And then make sure you develop the distinctive skills, practitioner expertise and profile that makes the very most of those. Never be afraid to be yourself – I don’t really like the advice ‘fake it til you make it’, because that encourages people to see themselves as some kind of corporate construct rather than building your best self from a real place. The business world needs more authentic leadership – and hopefully, that means you.
Be bold, be brave and break some old rules that were never made with you in mind in the first place!
Don’t shy away from following your goals. I still remember a CEO saying to me (about 10 years ago) don’t run before you can walk (I was leaving to go to a new role). I remember thinking at the time that I would show him just how far I could run. We don’t all react the same way to those sorts of comments but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
Be politically and Politically aware. You are a woman in the 21st Century - stand true to who you are. Things are changing, but it will take time. Indeed it is taking time, but it is changing - have confidence in making a difference. Be an ally to other women and raise them up. We are all stronger together. We all bring something important to work. Ultimately, simply be kind.