Henley Women in Leadership Forum

Event factfile

Date of event: 14 September 2015
Event ends: 14 September 2015
Start time: 15:45
End time: 20:30
Henley Women in Leadership Forum

Henley’s Deputy Dean, Professor Ginny Gibson, welcomed over 160 business leaders and entrepreneurs to CBRE’s London headquarters for the launch of the Henley Women in Leadership Forum.


Henley’s Deputy Dean, Professor Ginny Gibson, welcomed over 160 business leaders and entrepreneurs to CBRE’s London headquarters for the launch event of the Henley Women in Leadership Forum.

With a predominantly female audience drawn from Henley alumni and corporate guests, covering a cross section of career stages, Ginny began by introducing the speakers and restated Henley’s commitment to building confidence in women and supporting them throughout their working journey, and highlighted Henley’s position as one of the top business schools in the world for female faculty, and the percentage of women in MBA programmes.

However, according to Ginny, there is still much more to be done: “We need to remove the blockages to women taking their rightful place in the boardroom, through a variety of initiatives, including our partnership with the 30% Club. There are pipeline issues that must be addressed to ensure that future generations of women are appropriately represented and Henley is well placed to support women at all stages of their careers.”

Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj – shifting gears in women's leadership

First to take to the stage was Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, an Associate Professor at Henley Business School’s Centre for Entrepreneurship. Shaheena shared the results of a 2011 survey of 500 women leaders, drawn from the public sector, FTSE businesses and entrepreneurs, which looked into the barriers to progress.

The research revealed three key themes, namely:

- a lack of trust in the recruitment process
- a need for women to step up and provide role models
- a need for active sponsorship, rather than mentoring.

Shaheena also revealed that the latest 2014 research reinforced this, suggesting that women are still over-mentored and under-sponsored, in stark contrast to men, for whom the opposite appears to be true.

“There is a need to create a compelling business case for women in senior roles, which translates into financial imperatives and a greater competitive advantage. We’re doing a relatively good job in the UK, but we need to do more.

“North America also has a strong focus on developing women, but we found that across the Commonwealth, many countries are not harnessing female talent in the same way.

“There is strong evidence to show that diverse boards equate to greater performance, and companies have to recognise the power and influence that women can exert. A recent study in Singapore showed that annual consumer spending by women is $28tr - more than the entire spend of China and India combined.

“The percentage of women on boards is approx 50% more in developed economies than in underdeveloped economies, and this is a gap we can and must close.

“Of 53 countries in the commonwealth, 35 didn't even keep a record of the levels of women in leadership, despite the obvious benefits. This is clearly demonstrated in Rwanda, where the number of women in government has had a significant positive impact on the economy, and its diversity has put it in 7th place in the 2013 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, compared to the UK, which is listed in 26th place.

“The percentage of women in senior business roles in India and Pakistan is especially concerning. On the latest Forbes list of globally influential women, only six commonwealth women featured, plus a few from Nigeria – which doesn't collect data – and the Queen!”

Shaheena spoke of the specific challenges we face in the UK, too. “With an ageing population, the future demand for talent will be enormous. We currently enjoy equal numbers [of men and women] at the graduate recruitment stage, but it still drops off, especially where companies don’t have policies to support talent retention. And this is not primarily due to maternity, but increasingly women are leaving for jobs that are more flexible, or to create entrepreneurial businesses.”

So what needs to happen?

Shaheena asserted that greater diversity and visibility is needed for women at the top, and this must start early, at grass roots level. “We need to raise visibility of women leaders, in order to raise aspirations for all women.”

More data needs to be collected – and Shaheena is leading a team tasked with doing just that – and she urged women to collaborate, show support and share best practice.

“We need more stories...,” Shaheena concluded.

Professor Patricia Riddell – stereotypes and unconscious bias

Patricia is Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading of which Henley Business School is a constituent part. She heads a department which is 80% female, although the senior leadership has fewer than 50% women, and believes that a part of the issue in recruitment may be the way in which the brain processes stereotyping activation.

Seeing is NOT always believing!

Patricia illustrated her point by showing this image of three cars – and asking which is the biggest? Despite our natural inclination, Patricia demonstrated that in fact, all three are identical in size. Nevertheless, even knowing this, our brains refuse to let us perceive it as so!

A further illustration of this is seen when we draw parallel lines of equal length, with arrows pointing outwards from the ends of one line, and inwards on the other.

Even when we know that the lines are the same length, we don't believe it, showing again that parts of our brains are not always joined.

Patricia then explained the role of schemas – organised patterns of thought that we use to order and process information.

For example, we learn certain information about airports so we know what to expect from them. Similarly, we have schemas for houses, cars, pets, brands of clothes, holidays… and people.

“We judge people by our experience of the image they project, their appearance, clothes and so on,” Patricia told the audience, “We create these schemata, unconsciously. And they are biased.”

“In the work environment, we must check our facts, and must be prepared to change our minds. If the person activating the stereotype is in a minority, the outcome could be that you can make a wrong judgement. We expect people to behave in accordance with our expectations, and by doing so, we recruit in our image, and can shut down lots of opportunities.”

In a further illustration of our unconscious bias, Patricia gave the audience a few, sketchy details of a financial adviser and an employee relations counsellor. The audience agreed with the general assumption that the first would be a man and the second a woman. And research on this topic suggests that there is a heightened level of hostility and less respect afforded to anyone who we subconsciously perceive to be in the wrong ‘gender role’.

Patricia’s final analogy brought smiles all round, as she distributed Jelly Babies to the audience, who noted the different colours and smells of the various flavours. Patricia then passed round a different type of sweet, with distinctly different characteristics.

“When we introduce one that looks different, the original Jelly Babies begin to look the same. And this mirrors what happens when someone joins a group; the similarities of the incumbents move closer together. The one different person feels inhibited, scared, the outsider, ganged up on. The outcome could be that they become more like the group, which could diminish or defeat the purpose of introducing diversity. Or perhaps that they will be seen as a threat. They may well feel tokenised. As one of a kind, your mistakes are potentially much more noticeable.

“On the other hand, they may introduce fresh ideas and new opportunities, but anyone who becomes a positive force within a group dynamic may create resentment from the incumbents.”

Patricia urged everyone to consider a number of questions:

  • What does your organisation’s leaders/leadership look like?
  • What would you have to do to conform to the accepted network?
  • How can you infiltrate the in-group, and avoid being in the out-group?

From the discussion that followed, a number of strategies emerged, both from the audience and from Patricia herself, including:

“Connect on similarity, benefit on difference.”

“Meet individually before you meet the group.”

“Focus on common identities, on what you share.”

“Focus on how you differ from the group stereotype - the social identities that make you different from your group.”

“Walk in their shoes - view the situation from the in-group perspective.”

Patricia ended her session with the suggestion that we can all learn and benefit “by understanding what it is in our (or their) brains that activates the stereotyping.”

“It has often been said that humans have a ‘fight or flight’ response to new situations, but recently it has emerged that these behavioural characteristics were identified following research only in men, and that in women, the equivalent response is to ‘tend or befriend’!

So it seems that the options are to fit in, or fight, or preferably, to be authentic and confident.


Panel discussion – board-ready women

The second half of the event featured a panel of women in business roles, each with a different background, each facing different challenges: Emily Stevens,  at the start of a management career at Boots, who cited her main challenges as: networking and engagement; Sue Bence, Head of M&A Operations and Integration at Slater & Gordon Lawyers, who is striving to  combine her job with childcare responsibilities; Lisa Mota Pinto, originally from Portugal and now management consultant in the transport industry, and who faces a range of entrepreneurial challenges (“…it's not about doing the job, but how to get the opportunity, and how to keep the job. Support, belief and protection are needed.”) Sue Clayton, Executive Director, Capital Markets at CBRE, who sees her challenge as making sure that there is succession for women. (“Only 14% of newly-qualified chartered surveyors are women. Culture is important; support is vital. We’ve had a lot of success with the CBRE women's network.”)

Facilitating the discussion, Ginny Gibson firstly asked the panel for their view on the topic: Diversity data - how much do we have, is it enough, and is it transparent?

SC responded by asking the audience members whether their organisations monitor gender diversity? Only about a third in the room indicated that theirs does.

SB: “As a listed company, S&G has to publish figures and that drives change.”

LMP:  “There is very low representation of women in the transport industry, and there is little or no data.”

ES:  “Boots is still very much male dominated but the succession opportunity is open.”

The next subject concerned the difference between mentors (who sit alongside you to help you) and sponsors (who advocate you from afar). The panel was asked to what extent had they personally been sponsored or mentored?

ES:  “Both, and only by males.”

SB:  “It was the same for me. But the distinction between the two (mentoring and sponsorship) – is important.”

LMP: “I actively seek mentors, both men and women. Sponsorship tends not to happen in my industry.”

SC:  “I’ve been both mentored and sponsored, also by men.”

It was agreed that the type of relationship is more important than the gender of the mentor or sponsor, and that many women suffer from lack of confidence in being a sponsor.


A comment from audience member, Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, highlighted the mentoring programmes she runs for women in property, which promote champions, combining mentoring and sponsorship.

And she urged women to “not be afraid to network outside your comfort zone.”

Another comment from the floor asked whether mentors are chosen and sponsors just appear?

Several comments were made along the lines that women tend not to self-promote, so they tend not to be on the radar of potential sponsors.

SC and SB added that in their experience clients have been good sponsors.

Audience member Angela McConville said that her own staff ask her to be a sponsor, and she is flattered to be asked. “Women have to take responsibility and step up. Women need to get noticed.”

ES: “Most people take the time when asked.”

SB: “I’m always very conscious of the need to ‘pay it forward’. How can you help each other? It's a two way street.”

Another comment from the floor indicated that there might be less bias against women at the start of their careers: “As a graduate, I always felt that the sky was the limit. It seems as if the barriers only appeared later, the higher up the ladder you went. We need to think about how we can maintain the level playing field.”

LMP: “Barriers do exist but awareness will break them down.”

SC: “I agree with Lisa. And we need more visible role models.”

SB: “I’ve only experienced barriers for the first time recently, now that I have a young family.”

ES: “One of our trading directors is a good role model for me and very inspiring.


The tricky question of quotas for women in the boardroom was raised, and whether it’s helpful to have targets…

One audience member declared that “Quotas make me shudder! I don't want to be a box ticker.”

But another, Polly Plunket-Checkmian, was equally vociferous with a contrary view: “I hated the idea of quotas until I got on the board. But now I’ve completely changed my opinion, and I believe that we need to force the issue to overcome resistance.”

LMP: “I understand both sides. The Davies Report suggested that we should have more women as non-executive directors, which is fine but they tend to be occasional and low visibility.”


And Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj added: “For me it’s not a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Some contracts are dependent on agreed ratios. There must be a balance between shaking it up, and not being disruptive to the point of aggression.”

The meeting then returned to the issue of mentors and sponsors and who the panel members felt might provide help for female entrepreneurs, if not through the IoD or Chambers of Commerce.

LMP: “I strongly recommend use all your networks, and the local community.”

Dr Zella King, an Executive Fellow from the Henley Business School added that mentors can be helpful to navigate, or give access, to power and feedback. “It can all come from different people.”

Rehana Raja, a Senior Project Manager supported this: “There are people out there, but you do have to have the courage to ask.” And Gudrun Kuhmeier, Senior Alumni Relations Manager at Henley added that Henley and other universities have alumni networks which can be a great source of willing mentors.

Other comments from the floor on this topic included:

“You need to understand what you can give back. Be specific in your requests. And above all, persevere!”

SB: “I was sponsored by a senior partner. But I still feel that I lack confidence.” And in response to this Ginny Gibson pointed out that from time to time we all ‘fudge it’ – even men!

Ginny thanked the speakers, the panel and the audience, and reiterated how much she was looking forward to co-creating research together.

In wrapping up a hugely successful event, Ginny concluded that “Confidence is the key. And whilst you have to be honest with yourself about why you lack confidence, you also have to believe that you've earned whatever success comes to you, and you deserve it.”



After the event, participants were asked for their impressions:

“I loved this event, especially hearing from the panel. It is incredibly reassuring to hear that other women are experiencing the same challenges as me.”

“The issue of quotas is such an interesting one, and it was fantastic to hear both sides of the argument being put forward.”

“A really well-run event. Excellent pace and content. I hope it’s the start of something good and important.”

“I’d still rather be on a board with men, rather than being on one with all women; it’s the diversity of views, attitudes and approaches that makes it more effective as a collective body.”

“Great event. So good to see so many people here. And such delicious food!”

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