Discussing the Issues and Finding the Solutions

Elaine Heyworth - Safety and Assurance Director,  Heathrow  Express. 

I was thrilled to be invited to join Helena Morrissey CBE and Michael Cole-Fontayn on their Seeing is Believing trip last week.  The focus for the tour was ”Increasing Women’s Success at Work” – something which I am very passionate about – for obvious reasons!

There were 13 other business leaders in the group, and it became clear from the very start of the day just how important this topic was to all attendees.  These days we’re well beyond the need to justify a higher level of female engagement at the top of companies – it’s good for everyone – but somehow the message is struggling to get from the boardroom to ground level.


We were briefed to take a three way look at women’s success in business – starting with education, then moving into gender inequality at the office – including a discussion on the outputs from Opportunity Now’s Project 28-40 report - and finally, three sessions with companies who have found success through the engagement programmes that they have launched internally.

We started at George Green’s School, on the Isle of Dogs, and Jill Baker (principal) gave us an interesting talk positioning the school.  She explained it was in one of the most deprived communities not only in London, but also in the UK.  She talked about what the school tries to deliver – education, plus social and cultural capital – and how to be a strong person in the world. They consider themselves to be a successful school, but struggle to get the young people to recognise the wider world, and to find their route out of school. She also gave us an inspiring brief about her own rise in the education world.

We were then put into groups, and introduced to some of the pupils.  All the pupils we met were articulate, focussed, and extraordinarily clever.  I asked all of them about their family environments, and all were positive and strong.  It was wonderful to meet with these pupils who have such a clear idea of where they want to be in the future.  Law, maths, engineering, human rights were all subjects that these pupils wanted to take forward, and the sports and vocational agendas were also covered.  These are very clearly pupils who know where they want to go, and just need help getting there.  I didn’t get any feeling that they felt deprived or lacked ambition to go where they wanted to.  It was also clear that the girls were just as ambitious as the boys – in some cases, even more so!

The next stage on our journey covered women who are working now.  Helena gave us a brief outline of what Project 28-40 was about, and the outcomes from the research.  She told us that there was a myth of lack of confidence – women were confident in their roles.  They felt supported by their partners and families, and 90% of working mothers feel fulfilled when back at work. However, only half felt supported by their employers.   And 50% said that they had been bullied or harassed during the last three years, split between both men and women.

If we can encourage girls to consider what success looks like for them – and then assess their ability to achieve it, we will stop trying to force girls into holes they don’t want to sit in, and are unhappy within.

We listened to a fascinating focus group of women discussing the outputs of the research, and talking about their own experiences in the workplace.  They talked about the internal barriers to success for a woman - credibility, constantly defining and redefining ourselves, and perfectionism – but that these are in our minds, and can be addressed!  The more systemic barriers are - childcare, flexible working, clients demands, stereotyping women, women not supporting women, lack of role models, org culture and attitude. There are also wider, societal issues – we tend to channel women and men into their roles.

But we didn’t stop at discussing the issues – we also came up with some of the solutions: a zero tolerance attitude to bullying/harassment; being provided with the tools to deal with these issues (and having the courage to do so!).  Having access to people who have been through these issues. Defining what career success looks like.  Having honest and open conversations, without the ‘protection’ of regulatory concerns (this applies to both men and women!).  Proper integration with return to work support from peers or management.  Making it a business issue, not just a female issue.

The third session brought us to Canada Tower at Canary Wharf, to discuss with three (of four) specific companies the success they have had over the last few years in taking targeted action for women’s success within their own organisations.  The three companies I met were Royal Mail, KPMG, and BNY Mellon. Each had some extraordinary successes with their engagement programmes.

I really enjoyed my Seeing is Believing trip.  I have heard about these trips from other people who have attended, and how inspired attendees are following a visit.  I have always supported the drive to move women to the more senior levels of business, because I think having diverse perspectives at executive level changes the way businesses work.  However, we do need to do some more work around defining success – if we can encourage girls to consider what success looks like for them – and then assess their ability to achieve it, we will stop trying to force girls into holes they don’t want to sit in, and are unhappy within.  These discussions should start with the girls – not with the ambitions of a family, a school or a government.