Is workplace sexism dead?

Jill Thomas, of Future Life Wealth Management
Jill Thomas, of Future Life Wealth Management
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The Star’s Business Monthly editor Jo Davison asked four of the region’s most influential women to discuss the issue of sexism at work.

Here’s their verdict...

Jillian Thomas

This autumn financial expert Jillian Thomas becomes the second woman president of Sheffield Chamber Of Commerce in 174 years. Currently its vice-president, she is MD of Future Life Wealth Management and Future Life Pensions Solutions, and a partner in Banner Jones Wealth Management LLP.

Q. Are things equal in the boardroom and on the factory floor yet?

A. No, but we are getting there. I work with a lot of men – they have come to realise that a strong woman is not a threat, but a loyal partner. High-profile women are important mentors. Margaret Thatcher was mine. As an adolescent, her politics were not relevant to me; I saw a woman involved at the highest level on a world stage. It taught me a woman could excel.

Q. Has the situation changed during your career?

A. Only 5% of UK financial planners are women, yet I have found being a woman in my industry an advantage. Clients find it easier to manage and plan for difficult situations with an empathetic female. For me there has been no ceiling of limitations.

Q. Have you ever experienced sexism?

A. As junior vice-president of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce I gave a speech In the Millennium Gallery. Afterwards a man I had never met before came to tell me that I had ‘the sexiest voice’ and that half way through the speech “he’d closed his eyes and become aroused”. I told him I was pleased he had enjoyed my speech, and walked away.

Q. Female-only networking and business groups, pro-women start up support. Is there a need, or are we preventing equality?

A. I have always conducted my career without reference to my gender. I think females do themselves a disservice by marginalising themselves into woman-only networking, business groups, etc.

Q. How are career women and female entrepreneurs treated in the Sheffield City Region? Does it embrace female talent?

A. Because of its manufacturing past and present, Sheffield is a masculine city. But I have always been encouraged to excel. City Region business leaders have constantly been supportive. I was so proud to be picked by Sheffield Chamber as a future president.

Q. Do you often walk into a business event and find you are the only woman?

A. Often. But I am six feet tall, so I wear a red pair of shoes with five inch heels and tower above everyone with my head held high.

Q. What changes would you like to see to help women at work?

Flexibility in working hours and the ability to work from home when appropriate.

Ann Cadman

Ann Cadman OBE is MD of The Source Retail Skills Academy and sits on the National Retailer Steering Group, the British Council of Shopping Centres Community/Employment Working Group and National Skills for Retail, Hospitality and Transport Board. She is vice chair of Sheffield City Region Retail Forum and sits on Sheffield Chamber of Commerce council. She was recently appointed to the Women 1st Top 100 Club.

Q. Are things equal on the factory floor and in the boardroom and?

A. On the factory floor the issue is of equal pay and conditions. Clear employment laws are helping to resolve inequality but more needs to be done. In the boardroom the ‘glass ceiling’ is still talked about, but companies with a strong female representation in its management and on its board perform better.

Q. Has the situation changed during your career?

A. Yes. I have seen an increase in women at board level. Companies are now seeing the benefits of women and men working together. Investors are interested in the balance of board and executive committees too.

Q. Have you ever experienced sexism at work?

A. At 23, I landed a management role with a staff of 90. There was doubt as to whether I could do my job. I had to overcome my self doubts to be seen as a strong, capable manager. It was an incredible experience and a solid foundation.

Q. Female-only networking and business groups, pro-women start-up support. Is there a need?

A. Absolutely, one thing men excel at is networking. It is good for women to have networking groups that encourage them to build confidence. Successful women inspire others to strive for the highest positions while managing a work-life balance.

Q. Do you often walk into a business event and find you are the only woman?

A. Yes, but I don’t mind it at all! The most important thing is to be confident, to enjoy speaking to everyone you meet and know you are there because you are good at what you do.

Q. What changes would you like to see to help women at work?

A. I would like boards to conduct meetings at times that allow women (and men) to balance work and family, plus more training and development for women that increases their confidence and shows them what skills they can bring to senior board positions.

Julie Kenny

Julie Kenny CBE runs Rotherham security equipment manufacturer Pyronix, which she left a legal career and sold her house to fund in 1986. Last year turnover was £20 million. Julie is now a commissioner for Rotherham Council and at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. She is a member of Sheffield City Region LEP, Creative Sheffield and South Yorkshire Community Foundation.

Q. Are all things equal in the boardroom and on the factory floor yet?

A. Not in the boardroom. There has been an improvement as the Government has told the Footsie companies to increase the number of women directors or face quotas. On the factory floor, though not in its management teams, I think women are equal contributors. In my factory I have more women team leaders and managers than men, but it is because they were the best person for the job.

Q. Has the situation changed during your career?

A. Yes. It has been recognised that it is vitally important women contribute within companies and that it makes good commercial sense. When I was a lawyer there were few women in the law. I believe women now outnumber men, though not yet at the partner/manager level. It’s the same in accounting. As a business owner I always asked financial and legal advisers how many women managers and partners they had. I wanted companies to know it was an important issue to customers. In the security industry I was the first woman director of the BSIA and its chairman 2010-12. Only two years later there a second woman chairman. That is progress.

Q. Have you ever experienced sexism at work?

A. Not sexism as such, but my first meeting as a BSIA director was in a man’s club in London, which was not appropriate! I experience sexism from different cultures when travelling abroad for the company. A male sales manager is often addressed as the leader, not me.

Q. Female-only networking and business groups, pro-women start-up support. Is there a need, or are we preventing equality?

A. To help women get started in business I believe they need some female-only networking/mentoring support. It gives them confidence and is only what men have had for hundreds of years through organisations like Rotary and the Freemasons.

I do not believe in positive discrimination, however I accept it has, in the past, helped to prime change. When Blair’s Babes went into Parliament many had succeeded as a result of women-only selection panels. I did not agree with this at the time; I believe a woman should get a job because she is the best candidate and some of them were not. However, on reflection, we now have many more women MPs because of this initiative.

Q. How are career women and female entrepreneurs treated in the Sheffield City Region? Does it embrace female talent?

A. I think women are positively encouraged and welcomed in most of the region. There are still the odd old boys’ institutions but we continue to push. When I began my public service in Rotherham in 1995 there was a male old guard. They later told me they observed me from afar, wondering what I would do, but that I won them over.

Q. At business events, are you often the only woman?

A. Yes, this still happens. Usually I find out if I know anyone attending before I enter the room and then try to find them but if not, I just go up to a group of men, introduce myself and ask if I can join their conversation. I have never had a refusal - quite the opposite, they have been very charming.

Q. What changes would you like to see to help women at work?

A. More help for women around their family needs without it being legislated for. At the moment employers cannot ask a woman when/if she would like a family or if she is likely to come back after having a child. I think you should be able to talk with female employees and plan their needs into the company’s needs.

Pam Liversidge

Pam Liversidge OBE was the first female Master Cutler for Hallamshire and the first woman President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Her career has spanned engineering with GKN to running her own manufacturing companies. She is MD of Quest Investments Ltd and is a Deputy Lieutenant of South Yorkshire.

Q. Are all things equal in the boardroom and on the factory floor yet?

A. No - because there is not yet an equal representation of both sexes. This is due to a wide variety of reasons. There are still a number of jobs in factories which need men’s physical attributes. In the boardroom it is relatively recently that women have occupied more senior management positions and it takes time to gain the expertise and experience necessary to add value as a director.

Q. Has the situation changed during your career?

A.Significantly. It was almost unheard of in the early 1970s for women to hold positions of power in companies except through family ownership - and most women who worked on the factory floor were unqualified. One of my earliest jobs after university was in a company which made electrical laminations. All the parts made on small presses which required dexterity to operate were made by women, but the big high-speed presses which required a more visual supervisory skill were done by men!

Q. Have you ever experienced sexism at work?

A.Early in my career as an industrial engineer I found out the man with whom I was working was earning significantly more money than me. When I challenged my boss I was told that my colleague had a wife and children, whereas I had a husband who had a good job! I voted with my feet.

Q. Female-only networking and business groups, pro-women start up support…. is there a need for this, or are we preventing true equality?

A.Female networking and business groups encourage women to aspire. They demonstrate to younger, less experienced women that it is possible to be successful and help give confidence and provide mentoring opportunities. However I am averse to positive discrimination as it engenders resentment and means women are not measured equally on their contribution/success.

Legislation will never stop gossip and underhand comments, which is what happens when a women is perceived to have achieved success by legislation and not merit.

Q. How are career women and female entrepreneurs treated in the Sheffield City Region? Does it embrace its female talent?

A. The SCR very much values and encourages its female talent, especially today as it is accepted that to compete we need all the skill, experience and talent we can find. This region also works hard at highlighting successful women as role models even at apprentice level, as we have seen over the years at the Global Manufacturing Festival.

Q. Do you often walk into a business event and find you are the only woman in the room? How do you combat that?

A. As I chose to become a Chartered Mechanical Engineer and work in heavy industry the majority of my life, I’ve often found myself either the only women or very much in the minority. The most extreme, and unnerving, experience was my first university lecture. I was the only girl in 120 men. When I was Master Cutler I found myself in the minority at some of the London Livery dinners.

I have found the best way to deal with this is to pick out one man or a small group, go up and start a conversation.

Always smile and compliment at least one of the group - we all like to hear good things and we respond to a friendly smile!

Today there are so many more women in business. Although I have occasionally found small groups of women aren’t always terribly friendly.

Q. What changes would you like to see to help women at work?

A.We work really hard to get girls and young women to train in Science, Engineering and Technology related industries, but we don’t have robust systems for keeping in touch with them and helping them to keep up with developments in their sector when they take time out to have families.

I also think schools need to get across the message to girls; don’t just get a job, get a career!