Leading ladies

1 August 2014

Business has come a long way in terms of gender diversity, and the shortlist of the recent First Women Awards provides plenty of examples of strong pioneering females. However, some of their stories also highlight areas of concern that will have contributed to there still being fewer women at the top.

At the end of June, Glencore Xstrata appointed Patrice Merrin as non-executive director. The move means that no all-male boards remain in the FTSE 100. But it’s taken time to get to this position, and in the FTSE 250 the challenge persists. 

In addition, certain sectors – from mining to construction – have fewer women in the pipeline, so the scope for senior female appointments is limited.

A recent CBI report, Building on Progress, emphasises that many women still face obstacles at various times through their careers, from choices at school to breaking into the boardroom. It highlights the fact that both businesses and government have more to do to create an environment in which more women can succeed. 

The report also moves the equal pay agenda up the list of priorities.

Business Voice talked to shortlisted candidates and winners at this year’s First Women Awards – in the construction, manufacturing, engineering and science and technology sectors traditionally dominated by men – to find out more about their paths to the top. All were keen to tell their stories, to encourage more women to follow in their footsteps.

But common messages emerged. Some of those we talked to had lacked career guidance and had, instead, either been inspired by family members or fallen into their careers by chance. Many criticised their respective industries for not broadcasting the breadth of opportunities they offered. And most of them credited supportive managers for their progression.

 Carolyn Adams

Quality and continuous improvement manager for coffee, Mondelez

In many ways, Carolyn Adams’s experience reflects the current drive to promote more vocational routes into work. She learnt on the job, starting in a laboratory for General Foods-owned instant coffee brand Maxwell House.

She then progressed to head all global coffee product development for Kraft, and now has a leadership role in manufacturing business development at what is now Mondelez.

23% The proportion of the manufacturing workforce who are women

“I don’t think people are aware how fulfilling a career in manufacturing or engineering can be,” she says. Yet before her career started, she herself was “totally unaware of industry” as an option – she applied for the position at Maxwell House as just a summer job before she went off to study physiotherapy.

But Adams never left, finding she had a knack for understanding science and the ability to apply it to the consumer side of the business. “Especially within research and development, I broke through glass ceilings because (a) I didn’t have the technical degrees the majority of people had and (b) it was an organisation that was totally male-dominated and women engineers, with degrees, had given up before me. They tended to go into teaching.”

She has also had children and says that as a result it’s probably taken her longer to get to where she is, but she adds “I haven’t got frustrated with that time span”.

Adams credits supportive managers and the fact she grasped opportunities – she even studied for an HNC in business finance on day release, funded by Kraft. She has seen a change in the proportion of women engineers around her, although she’s still used to being the only woman in senior meetings other than someone from HR.

However, she says apprenticeships are still very male – with only one female applicant out of 30 this year.

She argues that the challenge lies in raising the profile of a career in the food industry, the wide-ranging opportunities it holds, and its potential for innovation – for both girls and boys. To this end, Mondelez is now going into schools to give talks.

In addition, the company has invited representatives from the government and shadow government to visit the site in Banbury, Oxfordshire – where Adams has been responsible for attracting investment back into the UK – to help raise the company’s profile and the importance it places on training. 

Vidhyalakshmi Karthikeyan

Senior researcher, BT

Vidhyalakshmi Karthikeyan is the most prolific inventor that BT has employed over the past decade. Over the five years she has been there, she’s filed 16 patents. She’s only 26.

Karthikeyan grew up in India and Malaysia, and came to London as an international student to study electronic engineering, despite pressure from plenty of people recommending other subjects “as more suitable for a woman”.

But she had been inspired by her father – a chemical engineer. She highlights the importance of encouraging children from an early age: “I was determined to do this, because I was sure from when I was young. You couldn’t shake that out of me, as much doubt as you might try to install.”

People are scared of programming or say they don't want to do maths - you need to challenge them

Nevertheless she didn’t discover the idea of a career in telecommunications until she was at university. The subject formed part of her electronic engineering course – where she was one of only a handful of females. 

Now she talks passionately about why she made that choice and what could inspire others to do the same. She is a firm believer in the continued freedom and fairness of access to the internet for all, arguing that it opened up opportunities for her she wouldn’t have had otherwise. “I knew nothing of London before I arrived, other than what I found out over the internet.”

Karthikeyan is also driven by the speed of change in technology, and by the desire to improve it. “I love the fact that [technology] is rooted in something that we now think is indispensable,” she says. “The role of an engineer is to cocoon complexity into a system that everybody can get something out of.”

Her patents are based on “machine learning”, as she helps BT move towards a long-term vision of creating an autonomous network that can work and repair itself as technology gets more and more complex. She’s now almost a year into a part-time PhD, in which she is prototyping one of her patents.

Keen to inspire others, Karthikeyan has given guest lectures at universities, and has been involved with recruitment and career advice activities since joining BT. She was also one of the volunteers from BT in E-skills UK’s Girls Get Coding event in July.

“People are scared of programming – or they say they don’t want to do maths. You need to challenge their preconceptions,” she says, pointing again to the importance of technology in everyday life and the excitement of being able to shape something that affects everybody. “You just need to encourage them that they can do it.”

Louise Brooke-Smith

Global president, RICS

Louise Brooke-Smith was inaugurated as the first female president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in July – more than 30 years after she joined the organisation as a student member. But a career in surveying was her plan B, after she didn’t get the grades to study engineering.

“One of my ambitions is to get the message out there that while surveying is already a career choice to some, it should be to far more. A surveying career is incredibly broad,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that there is this perception of surveyors being predominantly male.”
But only 14 per cent of chartered surveyors are female – although that’s improved from the two per cent when Brooke-Smith started out. “We’ve got a long way to go.

More women are joining surveying courses but once they qualify, we want them to stay in the profession

The good news is that there are a lot more women joining surveying courses. But once they qualify, we want them to stay in the profession.”

As a visiting lecturer to universities, she says she already sees a different attitude coming through among the next generation. She’s also experienced universities wooing her own daughter, who has expressed an interest in surveying. “They know that the women who go through their courses get good qualifications and do well in the real world, in industry,” she says.

These efforts are being mirrored by initiatives in industry, at RICS and among the big construction companies – and Brooke-Smith is also keen to look to other sectors, such as accountancy, to see how large firms have attracted and retained the female population.
She emphasises the importance of careers advice. “Get more of it, and better-quality,” she says. Role models are important too, she says. “It also helps to have visible women up and out there.”

After putting a call out to its members, RICS has been inundated with women just getting on with the job, who want to shout about it. “It is important to highlight some of the decisions that everybody has taken, to make it from the classroom all the way through to the boardroom,” she says.

As for Brooke-Smith, she’s grabbed opportunities as they’ve come. She decided early on that she wanted to set up her own planning consultancy, but didn’t want to do it too soon. So first, she worked for local authorities, quangos, the UN, a big developer and a big agency.

Eventually she did set up on her own – a process that involved both faith in herself and back-up from others. “You need to have a bit of confidence to be able to do it, but I had a lot of support,” she says. Her consultancy has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

She now believes her role of president gives her the credibility to speak up about the importance of diversity – and not just in terms of gender. “My emphasis is that I got there on merit, not because I was a woman, and I was adamant about that through the election process. A couple of years back, I stood up and said ‘if you’re voting for me because I’m wearing a skirt, I don’t want your vote.”

Rachel Morfill

Power systems manager, National Grid

As with many others in engineering, Rachel Morfill was inspired by her family rather than through any careers guidance. In fact, “there was nothing on engineering in the careers files” at the all-girls school her parents sent her to in the belief that it would encourage her scientific leanings. When she studied for an electrical engineering degree, she was then the only female on the course.

“I think that it’s easier now,” says Morfill. “But I was determined. I can remember leaving school and saying that I was going to be a chartered engineer by the age of 30 – and I achieved that. I battled through.”

Just 6% of the UK engineering workforce are women

She joined National Grid straight from university – and has enjoyed a progressive career path over the past 20 years, mostly in engineering roles, but also writing the organisation’s annual report one year, and heading the inclusion and diversity department another.

Morfill took on the latter responsibility partly because of her passion to encourage more women into the profession. The two biggest challenges she faced, she says, were the assumption that she wouldn’t return to work after having her first child, 16 years ago, and lacking a female role model to look up to. As regards role models, she says: “It’s quite daunting that I’m one of those for other people now.”

To that end, she has been involved in setting up a women’s network and a mentoring scheme so that women don’t feel isolated – especially when they work in the field, where the workforce is more disparate so the proportion of women is lower still.

Morfill says the culture within National Grid has changed significantly during her career, but admits engineering still faces the problem of being perceived as “oily rags and boiler suits". 
“That can put off the men as well as the females – and there’s the industry concern about a shortfall in skills,” she says. “The push needs to be on encouraging engineering as a professional job with a wide range of opportunities.”

But targeting women specifically, she emphasises that the task of changing perceptions has a lot to do with parental education – making parents understand it’s a job they can be proud of their child going into. “I was lucky that I had that within my family,” she says.

Annika Small

Chief executive, NominetTrust

Annika Small is chief executive of NominetTrust, which supports and invests in people who use technology to address complex social challenges, from social isolation among the elderly to youth unemployment. For her, it is the application of, and what can be achieved with, technology rather than the technology itself that have the power to inspire and attract more women into the sector.

This is actually the arts and crafts of the 21st century in many ways - but it's not presented as such

“It’s my perspective on engineering, science and technology in general that to engage more women you need to start in an area they’re interested in, and make it more relevant to what they’re doing and what they aspire to do,” says Small. “At the moment it still feels remote, and they’re presented as technical subjects that can be seen as ‘geeky’. I’ve worked a lot with teenage girls in this area and you can see that they’re interested, but often peer pressure kicks in.”

She adds: “This is actually the arts and crafts of the 21st century in many ways, because it’s a creative area – but it’s not presented as such.”

Some of the barriers come from within the industry. When she joined NominetTrust in 2010, Small remembers some people from the technology press asking to speak to her “number two” or to the head of research, “because a man must know more than this girl who’s running the thing”. Other people in the industry enjoy the “anorakdom”, and they layer on complexity that doesn’t need to be there, she says. 

But she adds of such challenges: “It hasn’t held me back, and I haven’t seen many women who it has held back.”

For young people, there are a growing number of initiatives that Small believes will help – ranging from Young Rewired State and Apps4Good to Code Club – although she’s worried that these aren’t accessible to large numbers.

Within schools, a change in the national curriculum will introduce more coding in September, which again is a step in the right direction. However, she references a recent YouGov poll that suggests that while 75 per cent of UK children aged 8-15 are interested in making their own projects online and 67 per cent would like to learn how to programme or write code, only three per cent actually know how to do so.

“Appetite is growing, but I don’t think there’s enough being done in schools,” says Small.

Helen Lamb

Executive director, managed infrastructure services, Fujitsu

Helen Lamb fell into ICT, as did most of her female peers at Fujitsu, she says. After taking a mix of maths, English and economics at A-level, she got a degree in business studies. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. 

And she didn’t know what she’d signed up for, either, when she took a role at what was then ICL in her placement year and, at 21, was thrown into a relatively technical job supporting mainframes in a team of men who were aged 40-plus.

“Looking back, I can see the challenge I had at the time was that I struggled for role models,” she says.

Nevertheless, Lamb enjoyed the placement and joined the company’s graduate training scheme, working across different areas of the business: in finance, HR, designing solutions and implementing programs, as well as in operational and general management.

“Throughout my career, I didn’t necessarily progress upwards each time; sometimes it was side movements, because I wanted to expand my experience. By its nature it’s been a technical environment, but my interest is in both the technology and the innovation that it can enable. It’s about bringing the relevance to the nerdy, technical aspect of it all.”

A big reason for Lamb’s success has been showing ambition, and two-and-a-half years ago, during a management restructure, she put herself forward for a board role. She became executive director, managing Fujitsu’s applications business. She has since overseen a 13 per cent increase in revenues and a 26 per cent rise in profit, and has moved over to run the managed infrastructure services.

She says she’s blinkered to the fact she still works in a male-dominated environment, because she’s so used to it. But she’s conscious that, in her position, she needs to be a role model and support others to be as successful as she has been, so she sponsors the graduate and apprentice programme.

So why aren’t there more women in ICT? In what is becoming a familiar story, Lamb thinks the gender imbalance arises because other professions have greater recognition. “Compared with medicine or law, ICT struggles with its ‘brand’. It’s too often seen as being technical, detailed engineering. That’s part of it, and it will appeal to some people, but it doesn’t really represent the roles and the opportunity that you have within it and the difference you’re able to make toward people and businesses on a regular basis.” 

But the process of attracting women into the sector has to start earlier, she adds – schools need to make STEM subjects more accessible, relevant and exciting to everyone.

Read the CBI's Building on Progress report at

The CBI has also called for action to make STEM careers more attractive. Read the report at

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