Women in leadership

Women in leadership

Former Frontier Chairman, Sarah Hogg, has written a few words on Women in leadership, to mark International Women's Day 2021.

I was born lucky. We “baby boomers” of 1946 escaped the terrors of the Second World War. As a toddler I saw the craters in London streets, and the exposed walls of the houses propped up next to them, wallpapers still on them, looking like our doll’s house when the front was removed. Willow herb grew where today’s London streets present their smooth and expensive stucco fronts.

But the bombs never fell on us. And until Covid 19 began to winnow some of us out, everything seemed to have gone my generation’s way. By the millennium newspaper columnists had got bored of reminding us of our undeserved luck. The decades ticked by without us suffering the much-forecast third world war. In the developed world we were the well-fed, longer-lived beneficiaries of peace, economic growth and scientific advance.

Unprecedented numbers of our fellow-citizens could afford to buy their own homes, and we benefitted from the astonishing escalation in house prices that made them so much less affordable to the generation that came after. We had the NHS at its best, before it became the victim of its own success, sinking under the weight of demand from our longer-lived selves.

And for women, change was even more remarkable.

It was my breakthrough generation that enjoyed a life-changing opening up of opportunities to have our own careers, earn our own money, control our own fertility. We were the first generation in history to be able to do so.

In 1960, only 5,575 women in the UK obtained a first degree (one third of the number of men). Only 279 achieved a higher degree (a mere tenth of the number of men). The pill wasn’t prescribed on the NHS until 1961, and then only for married women. Not that they had things easy, should they be mad enough to want to pursue a career. The taxman deemed a wife’s earnings to be her husband’s, and taxed them at his highest rate. And income tax was really high, peaking at a top rate on earnings of 83 per cent.

Attitudes weren’t that far ahead of the law. When I joined The Economist in 1967, there were a number of senior women in position; but I was firmly told by one of them that I couldn’t combine marriage with a career. At that time, senior women in the Foreign Office were required to resign if they got married.

Even my mother, who had hugely encouraged me, made me try for Oxford, helped where she could, never quite got the hang of women’s careers. When I was in my most demanding job, in Downing Street, she used to ring me every evening at about 6 pm, always a busy time at No. 10. One evening she must have picked up the tension in my voice, because she began to apologise. “I’m sorry to bother you, darling - I would have rung your brother, but he’s at work.”

“Working mothers” (assuming they were professional rather than “in need”) suffered a mixture of disbelief, discouragement and disapproval. We used a variety of deceptions to cope with it: if I had to stay home with a sick child, I always said it was I who was ill, rather than face male crowing about unreliable women. This of course caused problems if I then caught whatever the child had. (My chicken pox was rather extended…) And by the way, there was no such thing as maternity leave: I had to save up my holiday entitlement to get three weeks off after my children were born.

But we were the breakthrough generation of women. Change was on the way. Separate taxation of husbands and wives was introduced in the early 1970s: God bless that unlikely feminist, Prime Minister Edward Heath, for putting this injustice right. Maternity leave soon followed. The proportion of women at universities began to rise rapidly, and they began to spread out rapidly from their traditional professions, nursing and teaching.

The problem about breakthroughs, however, is that we don’t know what is on the other side. In many careers, the women of my generation lacked role models. There were Matrons and Headmistresses (in the language of the time), but few professors or captains of industry. Britain didn’t have its first female High Court Judge until 1965, and didn’t appoint its first female ambassador until 1976. The Civil Service had done rather better, appointing its first Permanent Secretary in 1955. But at the London Business School (founded as late as 1964), there is a fine large painting of its original top team - embarrassing now in its gender uniformity. The first woman CEO of a FTSE 100 company was Marjorie Scardino, in 1997. I became the first female Chairman in the FTSE 100 even later, in 2001.

Admittedly, politics offered more examples of female leadership. The world had had its first female Prime Minister (Sirimavo Bandaranaike) in the mid-1950s. When young I got to know the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons (way back in 1919), the formidable Nancy Astor, who sparred with Winston Churchill. But she was so obviously a one-off (an American beauty, immortalised by John Singer Sargent, she married Viscount Astor and presided at Cliveden), that it was a little hard to see her as a role model.

History yielded other unique breakthroughs, which almost instantly were forgotten: my favourite I only learnt about when I joined the Board of the manufacturing company, GKN. The “G” stood for the Guest family, and Lady Charlotte Guest ran the biggest manufacturing company in the world in the 1850s, after her husband died. She translated key technical papers from the French to develop steel manufacturing techniques, told off the male Bristol business elite for idle complacency and defused a strike. Oh, by the way she taught herself Welsh in order to be able to translate the Mabinogion, an early epic, into English - and brought up eleven children. Seeing her as a role model would be really, really hard…

I also as a child knew Margaret Thatcher, on her way to becoming Britain’s first Prime Minister, because her first job in government was working for my father at the Ministry of Pensions. But I regret to say that like many women of my generation I failed to appreciate the compromises she had had to make to break through in the chauvinistic world of 1960s politics.

That often happened to female leaders of that generation: they were dismissed as one offs, or criticised for copying men. Some, admittedly, encouraged these attitudes by kicking away the ladder they had scrambled up, or accepting the fact that the very male world could tolerate one woman around the table, but not more. It took my generation fully to understand the importance of women (not just men) mentoring other women to achieve the real breakthrough in the corporate world.

That didn’t really happen until the Millennium. But today, on the Non-Executive side of the table, I have even found myself on Boards where women are the majority (the Treasury, Royal Mail). Executive balance has however been slower coming. To get to the C-suite requires women to struggle undaunted through the times of greatest strain on their work-life balance. For I don’t for a moment want to claim that everything has got easier for the next generation; in many ways I think it has got harder.

Executives work longer hours, especially in the City and other international industries operating in many different time zones. Online working, though a blessing, also offers the opportunity and then the expectation that you will be working 24/7. In lockdown, it has been women who have borne most (though by no means all!) of the burden of home schooling. And with grandparents shielding, their contribution has declined. So though businesses are more conscious of the need to avoid indirect as well as direct discrimination, the pressures have piled up.

And attitudes have not kept pace with the law. Newspaper front pages may be full of political correctness, but the business pages are still often, consciously or unconsciously, sexist: “ambitious” is a pejorative word only when used of women. All of which means that women tend to shy away from positions in the public glare, as anyone interviewing candidates for big public sector roles can tell you. There’s also still a tendency to expect women to be more “caring” than men in business or politics: nothing was thrown back at Mrs Thatcher with greater ferocity than the fact that she abolished free school milk for older pupils.

At the Board level, private companies advanced less rapidly than big public ones, and for years I’m sorry to say Frontier was no exception. The only possible excuse was that the economics profession, which above all others should have known better, was at the bad end of academia, which remained exceedingly slow to adapt. (Only to be expected, perhaps, when believe it or not it was only in 1948 that Cambridge University finally allowed women not only to take their Finals exams but actually collect their degrees.) But an excuse isn’t a justification. And Frontier’s senior women today, who I am so proud to see at the top of their profession, are proof the talent was there.   

Which means that now there are role models, at Frontier too, and women who work hard to help other women. That means that when a woman takes on a leadership role - the theme of this Women’s Day - she needn’t feel, as so many in the breakthrough generation did, that there is no one to copy. It’s human to want someone to copy when we start doing anything, before working out how do to it our own way: a uniform to put on for the first day at school, before learning that nobody actually wears the tie that way, the skirt or trousers that length. So from watching good and bad examples of women leaders, and the experience myself of leading some rather different Boards, I’ve got just a (very) few pieces of advice.

Don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you to “be yourself”. I’ve come to realise that though that may be good advice, it’s also infuriating. You don’t, to begin with, know what you really are in the new world to which you have just broken through.

Equally difficult to achieve, I know, but more to the point, my first piece of advice is “be confident”. My school was run by an order of nuns whose founder, way back in the seventeenth century, pronounced that “There is no such difference between men and women that women in time to come will do much”, and that it was “vain fear” that held them back. (These sentiments, and the desire for female self-government of her institute, inevitably got it banned by the Pope.) The observation remains remarkably sensible. Remember you’re a lot abler and better qualified than lots of people doing what you’re doing. Women are still terribly inclined to suffer from impostor syndrome.

My second piece of advice would be: keep, and use, your sense of humour. It’s amazing how often you can defuse a tense discussion that way. Of course the person dug in on the other side of the argument won’t like you for it, but everybody else in the room probably will, and it shows you aren’t Cruella de Vil, anyway. It also helps you to remember, as one Edwardian Prime Minister said, that “nothing matters very much, and most things don’t matter at all.”

My third piece of advice, for those just joining a Board, is: don’t be afraid to say something stupid. Everybody else does. You can do that thing of saying “This may be a very stupid question…” although you can’t do that every time without making people laugh.  Not such a bad thing, anyway.  But I’d couple that advice with my fourth point: don’t feel you have to say something on everything, just to prove it’s worth having you there. You’ve earned your place without that.

And finally, don’t forget the ordinary rules of decent behaviour, amongst any work group. Don’t save up the error you have spotted in someone’s paper for the big meeting - alert the author to it beforehand. Don’t brief behind someone’s back. Do give people time to explain themselves. Try not to cut them short, even if they are going on a bit.

And, hardest of all, just keep on looking as if each meeting in your day is the most important to you. Because once you are a leader, it probably is the most important to the person on the other side of the table (or Zoom). When I worked for John Major in No. 10, I learnt how exhausting that was for Prime Ministers, because each meeting might be the most important the other person would be having that year.

All that probably sounds pretty trivial compared with the big questions about leadership. But I’m always wary of beginning the word with a capital L. It’s not just that it makes it seem more daunting; it’s that we don’t always want people who will lead us over the top; sometimes we would much prefer quiet competence that will give others the confidence to do their jobs well too.

And don’t worry too much about that “vision thing”! Too much executive time is wasted producing wordy “vision statements” that lead to confusion - or nowhere. Prefer strategy to vision - and don’t be afraid to take the decisions that follow. After the financial crisis, there was some attempt to claim that teams led by women had done better because they were innately more cautious, being flight rather than fight animals. It didn’t turn out to be true - or at any rate, some of the most exposed, over-geared investment positions were taken by teams led by women.

Personally, I’m glad of that. Gender stereotypes get in the way of leadership. Along with everything else.