This is how London's top businesswomen believe we can get more women into senior roles


Actionable ideas and insights from our roundtable for female London executives

We’re getting closer to the government’s target of 25% female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2015, we heard last week. We’ve now reached 20.7%, making the target seem much more achievable from a starting point of 12.2% in 2009.

There is still a lot of work to do though, as predictions show we may fall short of the target by just 1%.

So what can we do to boost women’s chances of reaching senior business roles? How can we get to more like 50% women on boards?

We gathered 15 women at the top of their game from across the business spectrum to discuss the issue as part of our series of dynamic roundtables. The issues are varied and complicated, according to our panel of high profile businesswomen, but there are solutions.

Women in Business roundtable

Many of the women who came to the roundtable said they were not only vastly outnumbered by men at their level, but some were the only woman to have reached that position in their company. We also heard from entrepreneurs who talked about the difficulties balancing a home life with business and how women are more likely to feel guilty about missing important family events.

Some of the solutions to the problem are not easy, but even in a short amount of time discussing the issue, some clear answers stood out.

Our thanks to Hays who supported the event, as this is a topic of particular interest to the recruiting expert following the recent launch of ‘Hays Leading Women’, an initiative which connects women with the world of work, helping them to fulfil their career ambitions.

Culture and role models

·         Bosses need to address unconscious bias in decision making

·         A positive culture starts from the top, but should include the whole business

·         Good role models are vital to bring people up through the ranks

The panellists were generally in agreement that the culture of business determines how many women take up senior roles. It was vital that culture was instilled from the top, they said.

Sara Parker, director of member relations at the CBI, said: “The leadership culture is crucial. Leaders have a big responsibility.”

CEO of Mentore Consulting Emma Avignon agreed: “The tone is set from the top. There’s a reason that phrase is used.”

The need for good role models was also stressed. Many of the panellists felt showing women that it was possible to succeed in business was more important than telling them. Young women on the lower rungs of the career ladder needed to be able to look up and be inspired by other women in the same business who were successful.

“And there needs to be a mix of role models,” said Avignon. “The high-flying super achiever is not right for everyone.”

Advocates and mentors

Similarly, the panel also discussed the role of advocates within the business. It seemed as though men traditionally were able to build “advocate” relationships within the company easier than women. Advocates are those people further up the management chain who are able to look out for employees and spot talent.

Activities such as staff football teams and golf were the perfect environment to build these relationships, particularly in workplaces where senior managers had little contact with their juniors. However, women weren’t able to or often didn’t want to take part.

The speakers also unanimously agreed that mentoring was a crucial way of building a woman’s confidence and network.

PwC director Kate Elsdon said it never crossed her mind to ask someone for a coffee when she was working her way up the ladder. However, now she’s able to spot this same reservation in junior staff.

“I’ve made a concerted effort to sit down with people,” she said.

“If they don’t ask me, I often ask them. It really helps people come out of their shell.”

External mentors and peer groups outside the immediate side of the business or company could be helpful too. Many of the panellists said the ability to ask questions to people who were not their boss helped women build confidence. Many women feel that asking questions and voicing concerns will go against them.

It was also agreed that women had the responsibility of bringing on other women by advocating for them and drawing attention among other managers to good work.

Education and empowerment

While some felt they were born with the right personality to succeed in business, others thought education had a very big part to play.

Many panellists said they were not given very good careers advice at school, and often it was automatically assumed women did not want to go into some areas of business, such as banking for example. Around the table, many of the panellists said they had been gender-stereotyped by careers advisors. In addition, careers support and planning stopped as they entered the workplace.

Bernadette Hackett, managing director of new business development at Arthur J. Gallagher, said: “Women are often channelled into the ‘softer’ route.”

It was also felt that it was important for women who were successful in business to speak to young people, as having examples of “real people” who have taken a particular career path showed teenagers that they could do it too.

Lisa Gagliani, CEO of the Bright Ideas Trust, said: “Young women often have a fear of failure and lack of confidence that stops them taking advantage of opportunities. From the age of 16 girls should be taught some of the tricks of the trade that men often learn intuitively by being surrounded by role models.”


Lack of examples of successful businesswomen in the media was also cited as a problem. Chair Sophie Hobson, the editor of LondonlovesBusiness.com, asked the panel what they thought of recent figures which showed just 3% of the business experts interviewed on Bloomberg TV were women.

BBC London News presenter Alice Bhandhukravi said while the TV industry did a good job at hiring a reasonably equal number of male and female presenters, many of the senior decision-makers behind the scenes were often men.

However, other panellists said part of the problem was that women weren’t as up for taking a grilling from confrontational interviewers like Jeremy Paxman, so they often chose to opt out.

“Everyone has a different interviewing style. I get people to relax – that’s my style. But those confrontational interviewers won’t always exist,” said Bhandhukravi.

Men have families too

Women in Business roundtable

Family life was an issue that cropped up many times in the roundtable. Many panellists thought they had had to make sacrifices at home in order to succeed in their careers. In addition to missing family events such as children’s birthdays and graduations, there was a sense women were often made to feel more guilty than men.

The panel said there was a general consensus among young women that a successful career comes at a price and that the younger generation have seen their mothers make a lot of sacrifices.

Yvonne Smyth, director of Hays’ City office said: “We have to make sure this message doesn’t cascade down. We need to promote the upside but keep the sacrifices to ourselves to stop young women ‘selecting

Not all the panellists agreed.

“It’s important that we give a solution to these obstacles and tell aspiring women how we managed it,” said Avignon of Mentore Consulting.

The good news was that things appeared to be starting to change. Jenny Knighting, sales and marketing director at LondonlovesBusiness.com, said: “Technology certainly helps. I’m able to do a lot more work from home than I ever used to.”

The family/work balance was an issue for both men and women, they said, and if more men were brave enough to say they wanted to spend time with their families, the situation would improve quickly.

Amy Parkinson, business director at Hays Senior Finance, said: “There’s also the perception that a promotion will be a much bigger chunk of work – it’s not, it’s just a different job.”

Parker agreed, adding: “Businesses will do what they can to help you. Women need to stop saying ‘no, because…’ and start saying ‘yes, if…’.”

Advice for women

Alice Bhandhukravi said: “If you’re not successful in convincing that person, try another person.”

Bernadette Hackett said: “Be smart, confident and build a good network.”

Lisa Gagliani said: “Don’t compromise on what’s really important to you.”

Lizi Pearce, operations director of Optimity, said: “It’s there for the taking. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Linda Brown, head of savings at Investec Specialist Bank, said: “Be responsible for your own brand and take risks.”

Our thanks to all the panellists:

Emma Avignon, CEO, Mentore Consulting

Alice Bhandhukravi, Presenter, BBC London News

Linda Brown, Investec Specialist Bank

Kate Elsdon, Director, PwC

Lisa Gagliani, CEO, Bright Ideas Trust

Bernadette Hackett, Managing Director, New Business Development, Arthur J. Gallagher

Jane Ker, CEO, Joelson Wilson

Jenny Knighting, sales and Marketing Director, LondonlovesBusiness.com

Suzana Lopes, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, learndirect

Sara Parker, Director, Member Relations and London, CBI

Amy Parkinson, Business Director, Hays Senior Finance

Lizi Pearce, Operations Director, Optimity Ltd

Jenny Rick

Yvonne Smyth, Director, Hays plc

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