Susan Smith spoke to three women who picked up Institute of Director Scotland awards about their careers and what they think about workplace equality.
In March leaders of the Scottish business community celebrated success at the annual Institute of Directors Scotland awards ceremony in Glasgow. The awards were notable this year for including third sector finalists across a range of categories and for recognising women on a much wider scale than previously. Does this mean third sector and female leaders are finally enjoying equal credibitlity? Susan Smith spoke to three women who picked up Institute of Director Scotland awards about their careers and what they think about workplace equality.
Chief executive of Cornerstone and winner of Aberdeen and Grampian regional director of the year
As the leader of one of Scotland’s biggest and most successful charities, with a turnover of £36 million, Edel Harris’s is without a doubt one of the most successful leaders in the North East.
Alongside chair Sir Ian Wood, Edel is a director of Opportunity North East development agency, is the first woman to take on the role of President of Aberdeen Chamber Commerce in its 160 year history and is possibly the first ever third sector president of any UK chamber, according to the British Chamber of Commerce.
People think, oh well, but you work for a charity so you’re bound to look after people. Yes, I would hope that we do, we’ve got values that would dictate that we would care about our staff, but it also makes good business sense to treat people well
But Edel believes being a women leader and working in the third sector are still both often misunderstood.
“I’ve occasionally come across sexism, in a small way, at certain times,” she explains. “It tends to be when I’m representing Cornerstone, or indeed in my role of President of the Chamber of Commerce and is based on how others perceive women who work in the third sector. But I think that’s more to do with the perception of people who work for a charity than gender.
“One of the reasons I went on the board of the chamber in the first place was to raise the profile of third sector and social enterprise in the context of the business community. Although we are charities, we are also running, in our case, quite sizeable commercial operations.”
Despite her hugely impressive credentials, success has not been a straightforward process for Edel. She has a varied background that has spanned both the public and third sectors and included a five-year career break to look after her children when they were young.
Starting out in the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s, she faced outright discrimination. “It was a very male-dominated environment. I remember, for example, that the allocation of driving courses was different for women and men. It was quite open, because obviously women get married and have babies and therefore it was seen as a poor use of resources to put us through a driving course,” she says.
Life in the third sector over the last 15 years, first as deputy chief executive of Aberdeen Foyer before taking the top job at Cornerstone eight years ago, has been a very different experience. Edel believes that the third sector is often a good place for women to thrive.
“The third sector has been very good at embracing flexible working, and not just because it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “I often stress that because people think, oh well, but you work for a charity so you’re bound to look after people. Yes, I would hope that we do, we’ve got values that would dictate that we would care about our staff, but it also makes good business sense to treat people well.”
Just like many women who have careers and children, Edel knows how important flexibility is to ensuring women can succeed. Having a son with a disability means she’s grateful to workplaces that enabled her to balance life and work well.
“It’s pretty challenging when you are bringing up a family. But if you have a child with a disability, it’s ten times more complicated. It’s very difficult to find after school provision and child minders who have the skills or the patience to look after a child with complex needs.
“So, for me that’s been a very personal journey and one of the reasons why I thrived at Aberdeen Foyer is because I worked in an environment where if I got the job done, worked hard and got results, I was less restricted to things like being in the office at certain times.”
So, her advice to young women coming up the career path?
“Take opportunities that present themselves to you and have the confidence to take those opportunities,” says Edel. “I quite often put myself forward for promotion when I wasn’t ready, just to get in front of people and demonstrate that I had ambition and talent and even if I didn’t get the job, they clocked me.”
She adds: “I would say that if you have a family or you have other interests outside of work, make time for them. I don’t regret not working for the five years when my children were small. That has not stopped me from getting on.”
Chief executive of Young Scot and winner of Female Director of the Year
Louise has been the chief executive of Young Scot since 2008 and picked up this year’s female director of the year award in recognition of a hugely impressive year in which its membership increased by around 25% to 620,000 and a new digital platform saw an increase in page views of over 200% to around 138,000 a month.
Louise, who worked as a tabloid journalist in the 1990s, says she’s never felt that being a woman was a barrier to success.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky because I came from a family where it was always understood I could do anything. I was the youngest and the only girl, after three older brothers, but there was never a sense that there was anything that
was an issue for me. It was never explicit, it was just accepted. Looking back, I now recognise the power of that.”
The interesting bit in all of this for me though is the shock I’ve felt over the past three or four years, when I’ve stopped and looked at the level of sexism that young women now face
That’s not to say she hasn’t experienced sexism at work, but she believes her background gave her the resilience to push through.
“It was first job stuff that now I would look back on and think was incredibly sexist, but at the time I didn’t recognise it as such. They were different times, this was 25 years ago now, so I just carried on in spite of it. My move into the third sector wasn’t because of that though, it was because I wanted to be a part of changing things and making things better and I wasn’t getting a chance to do that in journalism.”
Although Louise believes the third sector is a good place for women, as the leader of a youth organisation she’s conscious of the fact that young women today are not all as lucky as her.
“As a woman in the third sector, I’ve only ever been surrounded by people who have been incredibly supportive. The interesting bit in all of this for me though is the shock I’ve felt over the past three or four years, when I’ve stopped and looked at the level of sexism that young women now face.
“In some ways, I have to ask myself the question, how has this happened on my watch? There’s something for me, and I don’t have the answer, in trying to understand how we’ve got where we are, but more importantly taking steps to tackle it.”
Fortunately, Louise is in a position to do something about this through her work with Young Scot and its partnership with other girls’ groups, and she gives credit to great work that’s being done by organisations such as Girlguiding Scotland and YWCA to build confidence in young women and enable them to fight back against sexism in today’s society.
And there’s also a responsibility on women leaders, like herself, to stand up and be counted and provide a role model for younger women still developing their careers.
“I must admit I’ve had difficult moments where I’ve thought, how did this happen? But that’s why it’s important for women in positions of leadership to step up and make ourselves visible – you can’t be what you can’t see.
“In terms of creating the diverse, equal society that we want, we need brilliant boys too and there’s a bit for me about making sure that in doing all of this, we’re as much supporting boys to be brilliant feminists as we are supporting girls to be brilliant feminists.”
So, in light of her responsbility as a contemporary female leader, what are her top tips for the younger generation?
“Ask lots of questions all the time. I’ve always been curious about stuff – how does that work, what can that do?
“What I hear back from other people is that my passion and enthusiasm for things is important. I think what really counts is creativity and coming up with ideas and I think I have an ability to connect things up, to see a connection where others might not.”
But what she hopes to be remembered for is compassion.
She said: “I’m proud of being compassionate, and displaying it. In everything we do, because we are here to serve young people, compassion is central. “I’m not afraid to admit that – so I hope that people would connect me to it.”
Chief executive of Safe Deposit Scotland and winner of Third Sector Director of the Year
Jen has been leading Safe Deposit Scotland (SDS) since 2013, just a year after it was established to be one of several bodies to protect and manage private tenants’ deposits and ensure that disputes between landlords and tenants are resolved fairly. It is the only third sector tenancy deposit scheme in Scotland and this year SDS hit a milestone when it launched its grant-giving trust four years ahead of schedule.
Jen, who came from an IT and banking background just under three years ago, has discovered some surprises in the third sector.
“My private sector background has been quite male orientated, especially within finance. I definitely see a lot more women in the third sector. I wouldn’t say it’s any easier, but the gender balance is definitely better in the third sector.”
When I go out and meet other third sector leaders, they’re all have a really professional mindset. I almost wish some of them would go into the private sector because it would make a big impact
She’s certainly not keen to suggest the third sector is less cut throat, but Jen believes as a rule its values are more prominent, which can make it an easier place for women to develop.
“The third sector takes the inclusion and diversity message much more seriously because a lot of the work of the third sector is about people who are disadvantaged, and it’s about giving people a voice. It makes it easier for staff in the sector who face hurdles themselves, such as single parents, to have a fair shot at it.”
Jen is in fact a single parent herself to two still very young children of two and five, and while that hasn’t got in the way of her success, it is something she’s had a manage.
“I haven’t actually faced barriers as a woman. I’ve always been quite ambitious to get on, so I’ve never felt that there are people saying you can’t do this because you’re female or you can’t do this because you’ve got kids.
“I think the barriers have perhaps been in my own head. My life is about juggling work commitments against child care and making sure they see me enough as well as being a career woman. I think you need to be resilient to do that, you need to keep battling on.”
Coming into the third sector, Jen was driven by a desire to use her skills to create something that was about more than just profit for shareholders. She quickly became aware, however, of a perception that the third sector is less professional.
“People think the third sector is not going to be as corporate focused, and that’s very much something that I was surprised at. I have very much fought against that when it came to building the business.
“When I meet other third sector leaders, they all have a really professional mindset. They all want to do a good job, they’re phenomenal in terms of experience and their professionalism and gravitas. I almost wish some of them would go into the private sector because they would make an impact.”
Another thing that has impressed Jen about the third sector is the sense of community, the willingness that people have to work with each other on a project rather than compete. Coming from a background where people were nervous about sharing their secrets, this has really impressed her.
It’s a style of working that builds on her own desire to work collaboratively and learn from others.
“I’ve always sought out a mentor. It was a woman for a couple of years in the bank and then it was a man and I now have a coach mentor, who’s Eleanor Cannon, the chair of Scottish Golf and that comes through a professional network.
“I’ve always looked up to people in terms of what they have done in their career and how can I get advice from them. Because it’s lonely, especially when you’re the leader. You always need sounding boards.”
Finally, her top tip for young women is aim high.
“Follow your ambition. If you want to get somewhere, then you just have to be motivated to keep moving forward.
“I still love the great Lean In book by Sheryl Sandberg – don’t lean out when there are big life choices to be made, you’re about to have kids or your kids are young, because actually you want to be in a job that you really like and really challenges you, so that when you are leaving your children it’s for a real purpose.”