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Women in business: has the battle for equality been won?

By Linda Grant, Managing Director, BIC Innovation

With social media today being awash with posts celebrating women of all backgrounds for International Women’s Day, I am prompted to reflect about women in the workplace, and particularly in business. Have things changed much since I graduated from Cardiff Business School 30 years ago? 

In May 2023 I was honoured to be awarded by the Institute of Directors the Small-Medium Business Director of the Year, and then in November went on to be appointed as BIC Innovation’s first female Managing Director. Could I have imagined this award and appointment possible at the start of my career? Probably not, when one of my first interviewers asked me when I planned to marry and start a family, the implication being that I would therefore give up work altogether!   This was over a decade after the Sex Discrimination Act had been enacted, so should never have been raised in my interview.  My rather terse reply ensured I wasn’t offered the job and I moved on to a professional career where women were starting to be treated more equally – the world of accountancy.  Although there were very few female partners when I joined, there was a career path and the feeling that, as my generation worked through the grades, those opportunities would be there for me and my female colleagues.

So, in business, why is it so important to have women at the table?  Well, apart from the blindingly obvious fairness and equality aspect, it makes good business sense to have a diverse workforce and leadership which reflects the world in which we live. 

Ten years ago, Ernst & Young published a report, “Women: the next emerging market”, which predicted that by 2028, women will control nearly 75% of global discretionary spend.  And NatWest’s Rose Review in 2022 found that women in the UK established over 150,000 new companies – more than twice as many as in 2018. When faced with statistics like these, it doesn’t take a business genius to realise that having more women in the workplace, in business and in decision making roles is both morally right and economically sound. And progress has been made.  Just over 40% of FTSE 350 board positions are now held by women, compared to 10 years ago, when just over 40% of FTSE 350 boards had no women at all. 

I am extremely proud to be a female leader of a small business that encourages diversity in its workplace.  When I first started with BIC over 10 years ago, I worked around school hours and school holidays, which was key for me to successfully re-enter the workplace after a career break.  We have invested in learning and development to provide progression opportunities within our business; our open communications style encourages feedback from everyone about how to improve our business; and our student placements means we have benefited from different perspectives.  We now have more women working in our business, and an age profile which is getting younger, which is good news for our future succession planning as well as bringing new experiences and skills into our business.  We became a hybrid employee-owned business in 2018 which has brought a further dynamic to our board, with a Minority Shareholder Director who is elected by the employee shareholders.  But, like many other businesses, there is still more we can do to make sure we encourage women to join us, develop their careers with us, and become our future leaders. 

So, on reflection, whilst a lot has indeed changed, there is still room for improvement.  As I proudly watch my daughters embark on their respective university journeys and chosen career paths, I think they may still face challenges to make their voices heard, particularly if they choose to enter work environments which are still dominated by men.  But I am confident that they and the next generation of business women will continue to drive for equality, diversity and inclusivity and that many more women will take their rightful place as leaders of the future.    

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