A step forward for women in business
What’s your background?
I grew up in Ghana and came to the UK to do an engineering degree in 2005. My whole life had been about wanting to do engineering and I really saw it as the path to getting a good professional career with a reliable income.
I took my degree at Cambridge – an MPhil in industrial systems, manufacture and management – and once I’d finished I joined one of the big accountancy firms to become a chartered accountant. At that time, and before the recession, it seemed that accountants were paid significantly more than engineers. As the skills are so transferable, I thought it would be a good idea to become an accountant to earn as much money as possible to pay off my student loan so I could then move on to doing something that I much preferred.
Did your experience in a big accountancy firm help shape your attitude towards gender diversity?
I experienced how difficult it can be for women in larger organisations and also saw the lack of diversity from every perspective. It meant it was very difficult for people from different backgrounds to progress in those organisations. But what really drove me to leave was when I had my first child. I was working across the North of the UK with lots of travelling but realised I didn’t want to be working long hours. There was no negotiation on working flexibly so I left.
When did you first start thinking about networking groups for women?
I left accountancy to set up my own coaching and advisory business for SMEs – helping them with strategy, planning and how to go about building a business. The problem was I knew that I needed to go out and network but all the networking groups at the time started at 7am, and with a six-month old baby – and no nurseries open then – it was impossible. After work, all these events started at 6 or 7pm when it can also be difficult to get childcare. This was when I first came across Forward Ladies and decided to become a member.
How did Forward Ladies come about?
It was set up in 1999 with financial backing from a regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, with a mission to help inspire women to achieve their individual aspirations. I loved what the original founder – Etta Cohen – had done with the network, so when she decided to retire in 2014 I felt that with my background there was a lot I could offer.
I bought the business, rebranded and repurposed the group to make it more about business support for women, developing their skills, and supporting gender diversity within larger organisations. Ultimately by supporting women entrepreneurs we’re driving innovation and diversity in the UK.
How is Forward Ladies set up now?
We are a small team of ten people across the country. There is an office team of six based here in Leeds and four other women based remotely in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and London. All of us work flexibly and remotely from the office if required.
As a national operation, running monthly training and network opportunities for women across the country, we currently have 17,000 members and as the UK’s largest membership-based organisation for enterprising and career-minded women I think in time, and using technology to expand our reach, we could be ten times bigger.
What initiatives are you most proud of?
The work we’ve done with HSBC to launch a parental support leave package for small businesses means if you have a business with an annual turnover of less than £1m and no more than five employees, you could benefit from a HSBC financial support package when one of your employees goes on parental leave. As a small business, you can do the right thing and employ people irrespective of gender. It’s also a great example to set for larger organisations.
I’m also very proud of our National Women in Business Awards (external link). Open to nominations from women running a small business or working as part of a charity or large corporate organisation, there are a wide range of categories from start-up of the year to rising star in a corporate environment.
What challenges do you think gender diversity still faces?
Many businesses are still paying lip service to the whole gender diversity debate. They don’t put their money where their mouth is. There are lots of gender initiatives that have virtually no budget, so it just becomes a box ticking exercise. Until we’re able to convince big organisations that it is in their interest and that of the wider business to support women to both come back to work after maternity leave and to progress within organisations we’re not going to get very far. The dinosaurs are still very much alive. People are in denial when it comes to admitting they have a problem with gender diversity and through our initiatives and programmes we’re going to make a change.
How can this be overcome?
We need to admit there is a problem – unless we admit that, it doesn’t matter what changes to working practices are put in place, there won’t be an organisational difference. A lot of the initiatives that are implemented aren’t built on strong enough foundations and therefore aren’t sustainable. For example, we have shared parental leave, but in most cases men aren’t taking that up because generally they only get two weeks’ paid leave – which means it is still largely women who have to take large chunks of time off when they have a child.
What legal developments do you hope for around gender diversity?
We talk about merit – that women should make it up the corporate ladder on merit alone. But that’s not happening, so I would like us to try a quota system. It‘s also still very difficult for female entrepreneurs to take time off to have a child for instance, there is no support at all, so this is something else that needs to be realised, to the benefit of everyone – men and women – all organisations and the wider UK economy.
The National Women in Business Awards are open for nominations. For more information go to Forward Ladies (external link).