Reflections on Women in Leadership events from Director of Midlands Engine Observatory Delma Dwight

Date posted: April 5, 2022
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Midlands Engine partnership Quarterly Economic Briefings always represent the most interesting, insightful and often consequential milestones in the calendar. Produced by the Midlands Engine Observatory, these briefings provide timely insights into the state of the region, with each one centred around a key thematic area of our region’s economy.

The beginning of 2022 has seen us cautiously emerge from the unprecedented restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we assess the new lie of the land, many of us are wondering what a post-pandemic world will look like. Searching for the positives, we will undoubtedly find new opportunities to grasp and beneficial changes to pursue as the cadence of our working lives shifts again.

That is why the theme of this briefing, ‘Women in Business Leadership’, is especially important. It is a topic where there is so much room for growth, both in the Midlands and nationally, and where we see exceptional stories already emerging from our partners – right across our region.

As Director of the Midlands Engine Observatory, I am personally aware of the unique challenges women leaders face. The barriers to success may be subtle or they may be clear as day, but they remain persistent. That’s why it was so heartening to see such a diverse panel of successful women lined up to share their insights for this briefing.

From the world of business, CEO of Home Fresh, Jigna Varu, Managing Director of Dignio UK, Dr Ewa Truchanowicz, and Head of Business Development at HSBC, Suzy Verma, are all doing brilliant things, while Theo Clarke MP brought her own insights as a Midlands MP and member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in the Commons. As part of our collaboration with partners ahead of the briefing, we were also able to incorporate the views of: Clare James, Midlands Engine Business Council Member and CEO of East Midlands Airport; Jeannie McGillivray, Midlands Engine Business Council Member and CEO of Remote; Councillor Abi Brown, Midlands Engine Executive Board Member and Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council; and Edwina Dunn, Founder of Dunnhumby.

 

All these high-profile women highlighted the need for deep-rooted cultural change, rather than simply filling diversity quotas. They outlined the need for consistent career planning, clear salary standards and transparent job progression processes, combined with senior oversight and accountability, as key ways in which we can improve career outcomes for women. They also discussed values such as compassion and authenticity that women leaders can often bring.

All touched upon the fact that it is both possible and right to get rid of outdated expectations around working hours and aim for a healthy work-life balance for everyone, speaking of the hope that the shift to remote working required in recent years can help bring about these changes. It is one of the great advantages of the work we do at the Midlands Engine partnership that we are able to convene such strong voices and spotlight them as role models to inspire others.

There are certainly success stories all around us. The policies already in place and the work already underway in the Midlands to champion women into leadership is to be celebrated. But the stark truth is that briefings on this subject are still necessary – there is still so much work to do.

In response to this need and building on previous research by the West Midlands Leadership Commission in 2018, the Midlands Engine commissioned research from the University of Wolverhampton to gather first-hand testimonies and hear from a wide range of partners, to identify both the existing barriers and the key interventions necessary to promote women in leadership in our region. Published by the Midlands Engine Observatory on International Women’s Day, the Women in Business Leadership in the Midlands report is the result.

The report reveals that when it comes to the significant social and economic indicator of business ownership and business leadership, the Midlands lags behind most of the rest of the UK by a considerable margin. Despite good progress increasing the number of women on boards of the largest UK public listed companies, there are only half as many companies with female executive directors in the Midlands250 as in the FTSE250. In the Midlands100, the disparity is greater, with 12% of companies with female executive directors compared with 27% in the FTSE100. Of the largest 350 companies by turnover in the Midlands, 48% do not have any women on their board.

Understanding these sobering figures in the specific context of our region is vital. We have a proud manufacturing heritage in the Midlands – we were the birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution and our partner-led Ten Point Plan for Green Growth is looking to put us at the forefront of today’s green equivalent. The Midlands is also responsible for 21% of all UK manufacturing and home to 20% of the UK manufacturing workforce, something of which our region should be immensely proud.

But at the same time, while female inclusivity is by no means a problem exclusive to the manufacturing sector, its traditional masculine work culture makes it one of the areas where there is most progress to be made. The report also confirms that in the Midlands, as undoubtedly in other regions, gendered assumptions and expectations about what women can do, or what they want from a role, play a large part in limiting women’s choice and opportunities.

It is clear that we can, and we will, do so much better. The Women in Business Leadership report gives several key recommendations that can quickly begin being implemented, including: regularly auditing progress and benchmarking performance; promoting women’s support networks; and specifically tailoring start-up, business and regional funding towards the needs of women to promote take-up. We hope too that our briefing will prove another step towards the greater inclusivity that can only serve to benefit our region’s future.

We have a long way to go, both as a region and nationally. But at Midlands Engine we relish the opportunity to continue to work with partners to drive this agenda, realising our shared vision for a diverse and equitable world which realises the untapped potential and endless benefits of increased female leadership.

Read our Women in Business Leadership in the Midlands Report 

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