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CIPFA’s Women in leadership event – an inspirational experience

by Helen Dodds | 20 November 2018

November last year, myself and my colleague Simon Briffa had the privilege of attending and exhibiting at a Women in Leadership event organised by CIPFA North East which took place at the Civic Centre in Newcastle. The event, which was set up by CIPFA North East president, Judith Savage was a celebration of business women that are leading the way within business, and as an ambitious female myself I found the whole afternoon to be incredibly motivating.
Each of the speakers had a story to tell, offering tangible advice to women hoping to progress in their careers, and also giving everyone an insight into what has helped them get to where they are today. Here are four of the speakers of the day, and why I think they hold important messages that every business woman in the UK should read.
Jonathan Blair, UK Managing Partner of Womble Dickinson

Jonathan Blair is responsible for the strategic direction of Womble Dickinson’s UK operation and is involved in setting the company’s international strategy. He opened the event and spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusion in business and why businesses should ensure they promote a culture of fairness, integrity and respect for all employees. 

The most important takeaway from this opening speech was his belief that female leaders are essential for business success and that female leadership should be the norm rather than the exception across all businesses and sectors. This is a great message to promote and something we should all be getting behind. Organisations should embrace their female workers and reap the rewards that a diverse and inclusive culture will bring.

One thing that amazed me was the statistic that if more businesses adopted gender equality it would enrich the global economy by £120 trillion. After hearing this I couldn’t help but wonder what it is that is holding women back. Jonathan and the other speakers on the day believe it is combination of a number of things including, economic disadvantage, organisational culture, unconscious bias, self-limiting belief and lack of visible role models. These are all issues that we need to address to promote female leadership across the UK and beyond.

Linda Conlon MBE, Chief Executive at Centre for Life

Linda Conlon MBE, talked about subtle bias and how to negate negative stereotypes in business. She spoke about some real life examples of how women are often treated differently than their male counterparts because of bias and perception. For example, in business women are often called out for being ‘bossy’ when delegating tasks, whereas men are seen as being ‘assertive’ for doing the same thing. These negative perceptions are derived from the age old ‘old boys club’ that needs to be eradicated once and for all.

To rid the business world of these negative perceptions, businesses need to support more women into leadership roles by creating more opportunities and making themselves more inclusive. For example, companies should be carefully wording job adverts and adapting their benefits packages to suit. Linda stated that using words like ‘competitive’ and ‘determined’ can often put women off, and adverts tend to get higher number of female applicants if they include words like ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’. She also said we need to review salaries frequently, adopt flexible working practices and actively encourage women to be more visible in business in order to achieve true gender equality in our time.

Kate Denby, Executive Director of Northern Stage ‘Learning to lead’

Kate Denby then took to the stage to talk about her experience of post performances at Northern Stage and how she would hear people talk about how amazing the actors were, marvelling at their talent. She explained how people often don’t think about what goes on back stage and how much work goes into the lead up to the performance. People often forget about all of the training, the practice, the mistakes and the development of skills that go into each and every performance – which she rightly compared to being a leader in business. Being a leader is about learning from your mistakes, working hard and paving the way for other people to be successful.

Leadership is very different to management – a leader will influence others in a positive and productive way whilst energising and motivating others to success. Her advice, and something I related to, was not to think of leadership being above your station, no matter what level you are in an organisation. Too many women forget, or do not believe they will ever progress into a leadership role due to various circumstances, but this is not the case. Anyone that is driven enough and has the right skillset can become a leader, and more women need to be encouraged to take this step.

What I found interesting from Kate’s speech was her discussion around men and women applying for roles. She stated that men are likely apply for a role even if they only tick 8 out of 10 of the main criteria, whereas a woman will generally only apply if she hits all 10. This made me think about my own senior candidate base, which is predominantly men, and it made me think about the women that would be perfect for many roles but may be too worried to apply. As women in business we need to be braver and apply for roles that may seem out of our reach, and by doing so more women may achieve the leadership positions that they deserve and have the skills to succeed in.

Irene Lucas CBE, Ex Director General and Chief Executive of two local authorities

Finally, Irene Lucas said that more women need to “stand out from the crowd and make their voices count”. She went on to discuss the importance of women being seen in business and ensuring their voices are heard at every level to maximise success. This is something I know I have adhered to throughout my career in recruitment.

When starting out, and progressing in business it is important to be clear about what you stand for, to always ask for feedback and to value the contribution of everyone around you after all, ‘none of us are as clever as all of us’. Doing this, and having a strategy for success will greatly enhance your chances of achieving what you want to achieve. She also stated that it is important to do this whilst being true to yourself, closing the afternoon by saying that “the minute you try be someone else, you will likely strugglel”.

All in all the event was a real celebration of inspiring female role models and it really showed me that there are women leading the way in business right up and down the country. However, it also highlighted the fact that there is still a way to go before we achieve true gender equality, and that is something all businesses should be putting at the top of their agenda for the years to come.

If you would like more information about the Women in Leadership event, please feel free to email me directly on helen.dodds@sellickpartnership.co.uk