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Three ways to fight for gender equality in an economic crisis

Amid soaring energy prices, high inflation and weakened consumer demand, speakers at the FT Women in Business Summit Europe on Tuesday (13 June) discussed how to empower resilient female leaders. 

Women should not have to fight for equality alone 

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service explained how women are burdened with fighting for equal representation in leadership. 

She said: “The reasons people give [for lack of female representation] often place the blame on women. 

“People will say ‘she wasn’t confident enough’, or that there aren’t enough female role models - rather than consider how to uplift talented women.” 

Burcin Ressamoglu, CEO of benefits service Sodexo Engage UK, spoke about the importance of male allyship in making change. 

She said: “I have to emphasise that men need to take this issue on if things are going to change.  

“We’ve been talking about the same issues since the beginning of my career - how can we talk about AI and spacetravel but not have solved gender equality?  

“We need men to understand this otherwise we will keep experiencing resistance. 

“The rules and the structure of work were designed by men. So really, they are the ones who have a duty to change things.” 

On the other hand, Cohen-Hatton said women often feel pressure not to mention gender politics because they fear being seen as a ‘female leader’ rather than simply a leader. 

“It can be hard to call things out when you see them. But by staying quiet you’re just masking the reality of the impact of sexism. I’ve often thought, if not me, then who will do it?” 

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Don't underestimate transferable skills

Kathryn Britten, managing director at management consultancy AlixPartners said businesses need innovative and communicative leaders through tumultuous times and low business confidence. 

“When we researched the attributes of leaders whose businesses are currently growing, we found they had three traits in common: optimism, communication and authenticity.  

“I have a hunch that women have these traits in spades," she said. 

Liv Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent Water, said women who have taken time away from work for maternity leave or other caring responsibilities should consider the leadership skills and resilience they have developed as transferable skills. 

She said: “If you write down all the wonderful things you’ve learned to manage - resolving conflict, multi-tasking, time management - you’ll see how you’ve actually developed as a leader.” 

Cohen-Hatton also talked about the ‘glass cliff’, a phenomenon which sees women being more likely to take senior positions in companies that are already failing. 

She said: “Research shows that women take on companies that are underperforming - I’ve even done this in my own career.  

“This means they’re more likely to fail and they’re judged more harshly when they do. Why have a fall guy when you can have a fall girl?” 

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Less conversation and more action to solve the gender pay gap 

Baroness Helena Morrissey, chair of inclusive investment industry campaign The Diversity Project, said people need to stop overcomplicating the gender pay gap. 

She said: “There's no complexity - there’s simply not enough women in top roles.  

"I would argue that we have done too many PowerPoints, we need to take the ‘Nike approach’ and ‘just do it.’” 

She also argued equal pay projects need to involve more direct action. 

Morrissey added: “We have for years tried to encourage women to the top. That is just too vague.  

“We now have a programme which mentors and supports talented women who are selected by their companies for the best opportunity to progress and succeed in becoming fund managers.  

“That’s actually allowed us to stop dancing around the edges of the problem.” 

Morrissey said she has also been proactive about pay equality in her own career. 

She said: “When I first started, I was in a team of 16, and I was the only woman.  

“I worked really hard but was passed over for the first round of promotions because there were ‘doubts about my commitment’ since I had a child. 

“Again, I continued to work hard and I really thought someone was going to recognise that and tap me on the shoulder and give me a pay rise. That’s unfortunately not how it works. 

“Things only changed when I had a pay review and brought a spreadsheet of what I’d done and the money I was running.  

“I was so nervous but having that to fall back on got me through the conversation.  

“So, if I could give any advice, it’s bring the facts with you and be brave. All the same, it shouldn’t be up to us to ask.” 

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