For working women the future is bright

In the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8th March, London Business School’s Women in Business Club hosted their 12th annual conference at the Royal Society in London. In his welcoming address the dean, Sir Andrew Likierman, reminded the 300 assembled students, partners, alumni, faculty, staff, corporate partners and members of the public with no previous affiliation to school, that the club exists to look at the reasons why women don’t always progress as far as men in the world of business and focus on finding the solutions to bring about change.

With that mission ringing in our ears Cherie Blair QC took to the stage to deliver our first keynote of the day. While describing her extraordinary experiences around the globe building business centres and mentoring programmes that develop women in business under the banner of The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, she revealed some shocking OECD statistics: invest $1 in a women and 90¢ will be reinvested in her community and other people, but invest $1 in a man and that reinvestment figure can fall as low as 30¢ – 40¢. Knowing that the strongest families, communities and businesses are built with a diversity of thought that can complement and challenge, she called upon those 90¢ men to reclaim their reputations from the reckless few, and join forces with women to deliver a better tomorrow.

From there we segued into a brilliant example of just that – men and women working together to bring about change with Helena Morrissey of the 30 percent Club in conversation with David Cruickshank, chairman of Deloitte LLP in the UK. Together they have been asking FTSE 100 chairmen to commit to raising the number of women on their boards to 30 per cent and their efforts have already taken the level in the UK from 12 per cent in 2010 to 15.2 per cent today. However, despite such early momentum Mr Cruickshank acknowledged that the pace of change can never be quick enough. In his experience the diversity of thought, the richness of conversation and the quality of the decision making achieved by a well-mixed board has now become a commercial imperative and those companies falling behind will suffer.

The discussion covered many of the key issues shaping this debate, including a counter-argument to pushing for quotas on boards – they risk devaluing the presence of the capable women that have been appointed solely on merit, through to the fact that headhunting firms need to be more thoughtful in building long lists of candidates who include more than just those who are tried and tested, and think about the intrinsic capabilities individuals can bring to the boardroom to make a better team. Under Mr Cruickshank’s leadership the Deloitte Academy is taking this mission even further by supporting potential individual directors, both men and women, with training in the key skills and capabilities they will need to manage and govern effectively.

Our first panel of the day focused on staying motivated and inspired as you work to move up the corporate ladder with amazing women from finance, consulting and industry all represented.

Syl Saller, global innovation director of Diageo talked about how she believes it is not about work-life balance, but instead making life work. She encouraged us to maximise everything we are so privileged to have and not to see trade-offs in our lives and careers as necessarily negatives, but decisions that reflect how you see the world and shape the life you want to live.

Mary Meaney, a partner at McKinsey discussed how the firm came to understand that there was no silver bullet solution to keeping talented women in work and advancing them, but rather it is a case of silver buckshot. Lots of small changes can make a very big difference, a view that was wholly supported by Fiona Dawson, president of Mars UK, who talked about how they had shifted their culture without a formal women’s programme. Instead they developed a network that focused on growing women manager’s confidence (as they already have the skills) and making simple structural changes such as no strategy meetings before 10.00am and no board meetings during half term; something that was of benefit to both men and women and their family lives in equal measure.

Everyone agreed that the future is bright as flexibility in our working lives will be demanded by future generations, who will also prove that they can still deliver maximum value to their employers. In that way such conditions will become the norm.

Bindi Karia, emerging business lead at Microsoft BizSpark UK taught us about the kind of networking that has helped take her from zero to 2,700 companies in the programme in 3.5 years. She encouraged us to focus on links because it is not what you know but who you know. Her view is that you should always pay it forward without agenda. Help someone and in turn someone will help you. Never be scared to ask. Don’t be a jerk. Think about who you want to meet and be specific about why and then go after them in a creative way using all of the avenues that modern technology makes available to you.

Finally never forget to be yourself and in time you will have been out there enough that people will start to ask where you are when you’re not there. That is when you know you’ve made it! The day closed with the wonderfully energetic Sue O’Brien, chief executive of Norman Broadbent who shared her experiences from an extraordinarily varied career which had been driven by her ability to seize an opportunity and not look back. She spoke openly about how important it is to surround yourself with people who make you better, and when you find a mentor make sure they stretch you to the furthest edges of your capabilities so that you continue to grow. Her lasting message was to focus on what you want to do and what makes you most passionate as those two things will always take you where you should be.

The day delivered exactly what it promised – inspiration from an extraordinary spectrum of female professionals who are moving business forward every day. For those of us in the room who are now in the process of thinking through where we will best fit in the world following the MBA and what our exact ambitions are for our professional lives, it certainly gave us plenty of food for thought.