• Melanie Forbes
  • Lisa Jordan
  • Naomi Climer
  • Penny Cogher
Chief Executive Officer, Guidant Group

What are the benefits of gender equality in the workplace?

We spend so much time at work that it has become a sub-community of society with its own culture. Any culture needs to be represented by both genders because of the benefits that brings. In the workplace, gender equality produces a more rounded and measured business. When it comes to attracting talent, people will look at an organisation’s culture and not just the pay and benefits. Businesses that improve their gender balance could also solve their skill shortages. In the world of recruitment it can be hard to attract the candidates clients want. Even recruitment agencies live up to gender stereotypes with IT and engineering recruiters still male dominated and secretarial agencies still run by women.

Is there a need to realise the economic potential of women at work?

This not about the potential for women to earn and contribute to the economy but is a necessity because they represent 50% of the workforce. What women do require are the support services, such as affordable childcare, to enable them to work effectively. After all, it makes sense to encourage more women to work because they pay their taxes and spend their money in the shops. Recruiting more women must become the norm for business, although I am not a fan of women’s business networks which I feel treat the symptoms and not the cause of why more women do not succeed in business. We need to win the hearts and minds of the men. Recruiters are in a position to educate, inform and influence clients.

Are diversity quotas a good thing for business?

I have come around to the idea of quotas but I am not a big fan. When my teenage daughter was entering the workforce I used to think she might only succeed because of quotas. What they do well is keep the whole issue of women in business on the agenda and allow women to reach their potential and improve the performance and productivity of businesses. Quotas are a necessary evil. There are arguments about whether it means employers are not always choosing the best person for the job, but it is a way for organisations to experience the benefits that a gender-balanced workforce brings and change perceptions. We also need a way to encourage strong female role models in business and quotas are one way to do this.

What advice would you give young women coming into the workforce?

To make sure you reach your full potential. I look at my career and I like to think I have always been authentic. Women do not need to dress or act like men at work. If you try to be something you are not you cannot sustain it. Men can be more confident than women so you need belief in your own ability and need to accept you have different skills to bring to the table. Many men I know who appear very confident are not so assertive when you scratch the surface. I believe women are just as ambitious as men so I would tell any young woman to follow her dreams. If you do not want to map out a big career path for yourself then that is fine as well. It all comes back to being authentic.

How has your career progressed? Have you faced any barriers because of your gender?

Throughout my career I required different things and contributed different skills. I was treated badly by a client once because I am a woman. My immediate boss was also female so the client went above both of us to my boss’s boss when he had questions and our boss took his side. He wasn’t British so there was a cultural issue and this was a long time ago. I was much younger then and just accepted it. I would react differently if that happened today. Another incident was when another female boss discovered I was pregnant and said she was disappointed in me rather than being pleased because she felt I had potential and a great career in front of me. She thought that having a child would finish my career.

Would you have managed your career any differently if you could change anything?

Honestly I have been pleased with the way my career has progressed. The higher you go up in an organisation the easier it is to influence the things that really matter to you, such as trying to get a better gender balance in the company and to show others the benefits that can bring in terms of productivity and generating great ideas. When I started in recruitment it was not considered a nice career and it can still have that stigma, but it is more professional than ever. I remain ambitious and have business objectives to try and fulfil each year so I still want to make a difference.

Equity Partner, Irwin Mitchell

Are businesses losing out by not having a gender balanced workforce?

From a personal perspective I dislike working in a team with either too many men or too many women because I think you need a balance. I see more women coming into the legal profession but at the very top of the industry men still dominate. Why? Well, maternity leave is an issue and we need law firms to do more to ensure the talented female lawyers that do take time off to have a family are not disadvantaged.

I believe women are just as ambitious as men. I am surrounded by ambitious women but I worry that they don’t always push themselves forward in the same way men do. This is one of the reasons we have extended our mentoring programme which is aimed at all senior people in the business, men and women. This is a useful platform to ask women what their ambitions are and encourage them to push themselves forward where they aren’t already doing so.

I take part in Partner assessment days where people apply for promotion and I can read an application and know immediately if it has come from a woman or a man. Men are usually more confident writing and talking themselves up. This is not about bragging but about being confident. In an open-plan office you can also see men behaving more confidently. They recognise that this is a positive way to be if they want to get on. To achieve a more balanced workforce at the very top of organisations then companies need to support women and women need to help themselves.

Are there real economic benefits from ensuring women reach their potential at work?

If you look generally across the economy you can see that women are not reaching their full potential and in many cases are still not earning the same as men. I’m surprised the gender pay gap still exists in some professions. There is no justification for it if a man and a woman are doing the same role, although I also understand how, for a business owner, it can be hard when reviewing salaries not to take into account that a woman might have been away from the business for some time to have a family and perhaps not brought in new business. This is a particularly difficult issue in the legal profession where you are expected to build a caseload to generate income.

I’ve never been a fan of quotas but something does need to be done to redress the gender balance at work. There has to be a desire to encourage more of a balance. There is certainly one at Irwin Mitchell. Of course you want the best people to do the job but you have to accept that a mixed workforce creates a healthier and more productive business environment and that a mix of men and women in the workforce creates a better skill set which has to be to the advantage of our clients and the firm.

I do medical negligence cases and occasionally our male or female clients will call and say they only want to talk to a lawyer of the same gender if it is an embarrassing or sensitive case.

Are there any other specific issues around women working in Law?

Maternity leave is probably the main hurdle we need to deal with more effectively so that we are supporting women to go off and have their families while avoiding too much impact on the business. That is never an easy balance but it is one we have to strike if we are to retain their talents. It is a very hard profession to be a woman in if you want to have a family. It can certainly hold female lawyers back if you are out of the workplace for more than six months. The law sometimes moves at a terrific pace. I had four months off with my first child and all my confidence disappeared by the time I returned.

It’s even worse for female barristers who are self-employed. It can be very difficult for them if they take maternity leave. They can lose money and their reputation. Barristers have to build their reputation back up when they return and this can be a struggle. A lot of women do not bother and this is a big loss to the profession. At Irwin Mitchell we take gender equality very seriously, but not all law firms do.

My clients are individuals and are not really interested in how many men or women we employ generally but it is different when it comes to some of our business clients. They increasingly want to know about our diversity policy. This is a plus and is hopefully the sort of pressure that will force other law firms to take action, which should benefit talented female lawyers.

Can women be their own worst enemy in the workplace when it comes to progressing in business?

We are seeing a new breed of confident women entering law. The graduates I see today want different things from life than I did when I began my career. They are also prepared to stand up for themselves which is very refreshing. As Irwin Mitchell’s training principal I come into contact with our female trainees who have on occasion come to me because they feel they are not getting enough experience of a certain type of work. I’d never have complained in that way when I started out. They are so much more self-assured when they join and are not afraid to ask for things that they feel will help them to progress.

Older women could possibly learn a thing or two from their younger colleagues about how to push themselves forward. But for younger women I think it definitely helps that in a firm like mine they can see women heading up key teams or departments or sitting on the board. We have a really successful mentoring programme involving our senior men and women. Usually we allocate people a mentor based on what we know about their strengths and weaknesses.

What about your own, personal, gender battles at work? How have you coped over the years?

I have tended to work for larger law firms where there has been more of a focus on diversity so I’ve been lucky. I am also relatively confident which has helped me. I think back to how I managed when I had my three children and the longest time I took off was four months which isn’t something I’m particularly proud of now but that was the norm then. It would have been a real challenge to return had I stayed away for much longer I think. That isn’t the case now, certainly not at firms like IM.

I happily can only think of one example of sexism that I’ve faced during my career. I remember being at a client conference with a senior barrister. I had done all of the work and prepared the instructions on the case which involved the very tragic death of a young boy who had died whilst under anaesthetic. The Senior Barrister took one look at me and another lawyer who was there who was male and assumed I must be the junior person and asked me to pour the tea for everyone. It had to be pointed out to him that I wasn’t there to pour the tea. A silly example perhaps, but it is indicative of how things were in our profession not that long ago. Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of it, somehow I doubt it.

President of Institution of Engineering & Technology

What are the benefits of gender equality in the workplace?

There are a lot of studies that show the financial benefits to companies of having gender equality.  The Mckinsey & Company report ‘Why Diversity Matters’ claims companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. The evidence is there which is why it is so frustrating that this issue has still not been resolved. Our evidence shows that fewer than 50% of engineering companies have diversity initiatives in place. There can be some resistance in businesses to trying to improve diversity because some people feel this is about giving one group special privileges. It can be also be difficult initially to manage and lead a diverse team.

Is there a need to realise the economic potential of women at work?

Research from the World Economic Forum reveals that if the US had gender parity the country’s GDP would jump by about 5%. In developing countries a lack of women in the workforce, often because of cultural reasons, can be a barrier to productivity and economic improvement. Gender is one area of diversity which can benefit business as well as society because it gives you a more balanced team. You can achieve a lot as a company if you also employ people who have had diverse experiences. Perhaps women (or men) who have lived in a different country or are used to working with people from different cultures in a team. The diversity debate goes much deeper than gender.

Are diversity quotas a good thing for business?

Quotas can be very divisive. They can change your gender statistics but they are painful to implement. I would prefer companies to set voluntary targets and try to reach them.  In Engineering unconscious bias still exists even though people feel they are always recruiting the best person for the job. There is negativity towards quotas because employers feel they would be putting people into jobs for which they are not qualified, so it is a tricky area.  I would love to see it become mandatory for companies to have to publish their diversity statistics, including the male v female split in their workforce.  Ultimately we need to tackle unconscious bias when recruiting because not much has changed over the years.

What advice would you give young women coming into the workforce?

You must be confident in who you are as an individual – but also work with other women, and men, to try and get a level playing field in your business or sector.  You should keep learning and know who your supporters are within your organisation. Who rates what you do and who can you talk to about business issues and could act effectively as your mentors? In engineering it can be lonely if you are the only woman in a team, but do not let this put you off. It can have its advantages too because when you achieve something you will stand out.

How has your career progressed? Have you faced any barriers because of your gender?

I have had to face different issues because of my gender but I have managed to reach some senior roles. I am the first female to become president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, an engineering trade body. Things were harder in the early days when people would say to me that I was only in a job because I was a woman. It taught me to be robust and I am emotionally strong as a person. I certainly knew who my supporters were in different organisations.  When I was made president I did not hear any grumblings but I do wonder why it took 144 years to appoint a woman to the role. I suppose the pool of successful female engineers is still small but as the industry tries to attract more women it is good to have someone like me who is visible and in a senior post.

Would you have managed your career any differently if you could change anything?

To be honest it has gone well for me but I continue to learn and take opportunities as they present themselves. I have always made sure I take risks – and I would encourage other women to do the same. I have discovered that sometimes career opportunities are not always obvious. I have learnt to call on my previous experience when I need to. I have been president of businesses before but I am stretching some new muscles in this role. I remain ambitious and I won’t rule out doing something quite leftfield in the future.

Equity Partner, Irwin Mitchell

What are the benefits of gender equality in the workplace?

It is important for men and women at all levels to have gender equality because it helps with inclusivity and understanding the needs of others at work.  Men and women provide different role models because they think in different ways. I work in pensions and in the world of pension scheme trustees there is a big need for more gender equality because it is men of a certain age who are selecting trustees. There is so much unconscious bias in this market and this can have a negative impact on the pension schemes and business strategy. Women, for instance, tend to be more prudent when it comes to investing. The different personality traits men and women have are not being reflected as much as they should be.

Is there a need to realise the economic potential of women at work?

Many households cannot afford to have one parent at home, especially if they are in an area where childcare costs are high. So there is pressure on women to go out to work. There is also the broader view that we need more women in every business to help companies and the economy grow. There are skill gaps that women who have trained to a very high level could and should be filling. I know that in law a lot of female solicitors drop out of the industry once they have a family.  I am lucky working in pension law because there is a shortage of specialists so I can choose to work more flexibly. This would not be so easy in conveyancing where many people are willing to do the job full time.

Are diversity quotas a good thing for business?

I don’t like anything that looks like a tick-box exercise. Instead we need more employers to buy into the real business benefits of diversity so that men and women reach their potential. There are dangers with quotas, such as not always getting the best person for the job.  I don’t think this is such an issue at a senior level where most people applying would be pretty good at what they do. If you have quotas you do need effective training and mentoring to help people grow into a role and get leadership experience. I would like to think I got a job at a firm on merit and not because of a quota system, although if  we are trying to facilitate change and that is not happening perhaps we need quotas.

What advice would you give young women coming into the workforce?

I would tell any young woman to be resilient and not to put up with the status quo if they feel it is unacceptable. Be prepared to challenge working practices and cultures in a positive way. People say that this is what men do well. They will ask for pay rises and be more assertive. From my experience, if a team project goes well a man will say ‘I did this.. I did that’ and if a project goes badly he will say ‘we did this’. Often women do not want to take the credit. Women’s business and social networks are useful. I would remind young women of trickier areas of business, such as how hard it can be inviting a male client out to lunch and the issues that can bring. This is something men never have to think about.

How has your career progressed? Have you faced any barriers because of your gender?

I joined a department with two strong female partners in the early nineties and they believed in helping women to succeed. The culture at the time was long lunches in the City when women could behave the same way as men and felt they should. Once I had children I changed law firms because I wanted to work part-time. I was supported by one of the male partners in the firm who had a wife who was a professional and he was willing to make the arrangement work. At the law firm which was Speechly Bircham LLP  I became the first woman to become an equity partner working part-time. So my message to young women is you can get anywhere you want to in your career but it might take you a little longer if you have family commitments.