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The gender gap remains a challenge for us all. What can we learn from those who are helping to close it?

i2C Connect: Women in Leadership, 29th June 2017

“Be bold and know what you want, be conscious in your choices”: Helen Hunter, Director of Marketing Strategy and Innovation at Sainsbury’s

This summer i2C kicked off i2C Connect, a series of quarterly events that explore diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Chaired by i2C CEO Susanna Moan and featuring a panel of female senior leaders from Sainsbury’s, the inaugural event, Women in Leadership, saw the panellists discuss the challenges and opportunities they have encountered throughout their careers so far and offer advice for women motivated to make their own mark.

The focal point of the discussion was the gender gap that is evident across many industries, and what steps we can take to help accelerate the change needed to create a fairer and more equal balance in the workplace and specifically within senior leadership. Figures show that the gender gap is narrowing at a slow rate and that women are underrepresented at every level in the professional and political arena. To exemplify this challenge, the World Economic Forum has calculated that to close the economic gender gap at its current rate, it would take until 2186.

The panel acknowledged that a lack of female representation at senior leadership level is a major obstacle in building momentum to close the gap: ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Established male-dominated directorship can suppress motivation from an aspiring workforce that could otherwise trigger a change. Women at the top of their profession can and should be role models for those forging career paths in an uneven playing field.

Karen Whitworth, Director of Non Food Grocery, Franchise & Wholesale at Sainsbury’s, explained the challenges she faced during the early stages of her career. “One of the biggest cultural shocks I had was starting a job in London where I was the only woman working in an office who wasn’t a secretary.” Her resolve to not be intimidated helped her to progress within her new surroundings, but it also served as an eye opener to a whole new world of how corporate business was then run. The relevance of researching company culture before accepting a role is as pertinent now as it was twenty years ago. Asking what a company’s maternity and paternity policy is, for example, helps explore how progressive a culture there is.

Helen Hunter, Director of Marketing Strategy and Innovation at Sainsbury’s, advised that there are a multitude of preconceptions to be wary of, not least for new starters who are fresh out of university. “Let’s not forget that when you start out in your career you can find yourself the same age as your director’s daughters, it can be hard for them to view you as a business person in your own right and not one of their daughter’s friends.” No matter the merit of what a female graduate brings to the table, she can already be pigeon-holed by gender and age.

But though it’s easy to feel hindered, conventions can be broken by both tenacity and a bold approach. “It’s about being very honest about your own capability and then articulating that to others,” Helen said. “Be bold and know what you want, be conscious in your choices, and then don’t resent the choices you make.”

In support of this, Clodagh Moriarty, Director of Online at Sainsbury’s, believes that if you don’t ask then you don’t get, and women should not feel discouraged if they find it hard going in their progression. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “When you’re thinking about a role, don’t think about the level, or the job title; think of the role itself and what experience it will give you.” Clodagh acknowledged that it is difficult asking for something that is for you personally, but by doing so women can shape a role that works for them.

So how can things change more quickly for women in business? Karen feels that those in current senior roles should be actively helping young professional women to ensure they aren’t deterred in their career progression. “I‘ve never met anybody and thought that I would like to be like them, which for me is a huge disappointment. That’s why I think we all have a responsibility to help women, or to give them the opportunity.”

Clodagh believes that an approach that promotes diversity rather than enforces it will help naturally change things to a more equal footing. “I don’t completely agree with quotas,” she said. “However, I do believe that in terms of a dynamic leadership team, you get such different input if you have that diversity, and in my team the quotas happened to fall out because of the way we actively recruited.”

The gender gap issue is one that continuously needs addressing, and its complexity means that no solution can be found overnight. But if senior teams approach the challenges in an unprejudiced way, then it would help diminish the figures that expose it. Each of our three panellists has encountered challenges but achieved so much already, with an outlook that has always been true to themselves, rather than to anyone else.

The next i2C Connect event is coming soon.

Karen, Clodagh and Helen were speaking at the i2C Connect: Women in Leadership on Thursday 29th June. The event was chaired by i2C CEO Susanna Moan, and was attended by a number of i2C employees and i2C clients.

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