Suzy Brain: How women can help each other to succeed

Karen Brady and Kelly Hoppen at the London Stock Exchange to mark last year's International Women's Day
Karen Brady and Kelly Hoppen at the London Stock Exchange to mark last year's International Women's Day
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TODAY sees a celebration of International Women’s Day in Leeds. But what is there to celebrate?

The day has been in the calendar since 1911 in praise of the pioneering work of the Suffragettes. Yet a 2012 survey showed a distinct lack of knowledge among young people today of the suffragette movement that helped women win the right to vote in Britain and its leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

It is true that since we secured legislative emancipation there has been a significant change and attitudinal shift in both women’s and society’s thoughts about equality.

Internationally, women have made massive strides toward achieving equality in many ways and entering new professions never before open to them.

I wonder if younger generations feel that “all the battles have been won for women”, even though old feminists like me from the 1970s know only too well the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy.

With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think that women have gained true equality.

The truth is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, they are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women fare worse in terms of education, health and the violence against them.

In the world of work in Britain today, one key area where there is so much to be done is in the field of what has come to be known as Stem – science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Throughout the recession, Yorkshire and the UK have managed to continue growing in new technologies, providing a lifeline just as the financial services sector has come under siege.

But while Stem is a growth area in the economy, of all the women who qualify to work in it only 30 per cent will find the opportunity they want or manage to stay and develop meaningful careers in their chosen job.

The case for developing and retaining women in Stem isn’t about paying lip service to in-fashion corporate social responsibility remits. There is a sound business case, evidenced by some leading corporations who have demonstrated that by actively encouraging women they bring a real bottom line benefit.

The National Grid realised in 2004 that its employee profile was not fully reflective of the communities it served. Concerned, as it should be, about business sustainability, it set out to boost the number of women in leading roles. Since then it has won numerous awards and been recognised as not just an equal opportunities employer but one that has built a robust business for the future.

As with many organisations that develop a more equal employment policy, the National Grid put recruitment and retention of women at the heart of its business strategy to boost turnover and profits, building a sustainable business for the future and plugging skill shortages before they became an issue.

There isn’t a business out there that doesn’t want to see results like those. Yet increasingly women who apply for Stem jobs fail to enter or progress their careers.

Probing deeper, research reveals 
that women don’t even apply for 
such roles because they lack the confidence and understanding of how to access jobs in science, technology and maths.

A recent survey found that women will only apply for jobs if they fulfil half the criteria demanded, while men will apply if they tick just one box.

It’s clear that a key inhibitor to female progress in certain sectors is this lack of confidence and an understanding of where to look for suitable roles.

Mentoring and evidence are key factors in driving forward the gender agenda, which is why they were chosen as the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day.

As a chartered director and after many years as the single female voice in the boardroom, I keenly understand the need for women to take up their places at the top of all sectors.

To maximise this I believe that women should support each other through the world of work.

International Women’s Day presents a great opportunity to celebrate all that women have achieved. But it is also a day when every woman could pledge to support and encourage at least one other woman to achieve her aspirations. That would truly be worth celebrating.