Attracting and retaining female talent, and supporting more women into boardroom roles, are critical if we are to give British companies the competitive edge they need in the global marketplace. That’s the conclusion of a panel debate jointly organised by National Grid’s Senior Strategy Analyst Susan McDonald and Interserve’s Head of Legal Heather Key; and panelists from Sainsbury’s, the CBI and ATKearney. Here, Connecting presents a report on the key messages and themes emerging from the debate.
The inaugural event included a presentation by Women in Business Superseries MD Christine Brown-Quinn on ‘The Rise of the Female Economy in B2B’ report by AT Kearney for the CBI, which revealed that the UK stands at a pivotal moment.
Evidence is emerging that women make decisions differently from men in business, but the big question is whether UK companies are capitalising on that fact.
“The business case for diversity is obvious – it’s important for Britain in relation to its competitiveness. A mixed team brings diverse thought, experience, perspective and greater consideration to the business outcome of projects. You really get a whole life view of the challenge and how to get the best outcome,” said Susan.
“The feedback Christine’s had from seminars around the world is similar – that there’s a need for direction and motivation for businesses, and to have all the workforce engaged,” she added.
According to Susan, the report identified leadership commitment, a tailored sales approach, workforce diversity and outreach programmes as the four essential components needed by businesses and it was encouraging that National Grid’s own four main objectives are similar.
“The panel members were from the consumer, services and B2B sectors, yet all had a common voice on those four objectives, with leadership being vital to affecting change. How does a leader ensure they’re creating the right working environment for everyone to succeed and creating equality and sustainability?” she asked.
“It was good to hear how other companies are addressing the issue. For example, I was interested to learn that, when Interserve employees are bidding for contracts, they don’t just look at things like ability to meet financial objectives but also assess the company itself to ensure it has the right cultural objectives.
“It should be part of the metrics assessed when you go to procure work. As businesses we need to create diverse, sustainable workforces, but also that our suppliers are doing this too. All of this should be business as usual, in every aspect of the business.”
Heather Key added: “Events like this do bring home the message that we must attract people from the wider talent pool. It’s about making sure that our companies reflect the communities they serve.”
The debate also emphasised the importance of not just looking ahead to what still needs to be done, but also celebrating what’s already been achieved.
“National Grid was proud to be able to demonstrate we have a number of key female role models,” said Susan. “Emma Fitzgerald, the first female director of our Gas Distribution business; Rachel Morfill, the first female power system manager of the Electricity Control Centre; Cordi O’Hara, the first female director in charge of keeping the country’s lights on.
“The women in these roles demonstrate the incredible talent we have in the UK; and the fact that these opportunities in the energy industry are open to both men and women alike.
“National Grid is about connecting people to their energy, therefore we’re an important part of the UK’s social fabric. These jobs are not only exciting, they are intrinsically important to the community.”
The debate also highlighted the fact that attracting and retaining female talent was a challenge to businesses across the board. Plugging the ‘leaky bucket’ may require companies to not only develop people through training but also provide more support and encouragement for women to step into more senior positions, while ensuring they have the confidence to develop their own skills and by offering flexible working to facilitate those careers.
Susan stressed: “Workplace flexibility is not just about women with children, it’s about paternity leave, flexible working for people with elderly parents. It’s about making sure people can have those conversations with their managers.”
“You can lose an awful lot of business knowledge through the leaky bucket,” agreed Heather. “Companies need to use the technology that’s available nowadays. People can often work from home more flexibly and more productively. It’s about trust and changing mindsets, because the majority of people want to do their job well.”
At grass roots level, encouraging more women to pursue STEM subjects is crucial. The next panel debate is likely to focus on women in STEM careers and also be opened up to a wider panel.
“National Grid is committed to inspiring young people to look at engineering as an exciting career. But it’s the responsibility of anyone in engineering, science or maths careers to spend time in schools and careers labs, helping people to understand what those careers can look like,” said Susan.
In November the European Parliament approved a draft directive to force large companies to fill at least 40 per cent of non-executive board positions with women by 2020. And while Britain currently has no plans to introduce quotas for female board participation, quotas already introduced in other EU countries are going to have an impact on the way British businesses market and sell their products and services abroad.
“Once it gets to 2020 and change has to be implemented, the CBI will be holding companies to account,” said Heather. “But it’s preferable that businesses have introduced diversity and made the cultural change themselves – and employed people because they are the best, rather than end up in a situation where people are hired just to fill quotas.
“Events like this panel debate can help us to reach out to other businesses, give us a platform to talk openly with sustainability in mind and raise awareness that change is vital,” Susan concluded.
Simon Langley, National Grid’s UK Lead Manager for Inclusion and Diversity, explains why gender imbalance and other forms of exclusion are such an important challenge for business.
Caroline Hooley, National Grid’s Corporate Responsibility & Sponsorships Manager, and Susan McDonald, National Grid Senior Strategy Analyst, explain the importance of encouraging more women into engineering careers.