Vanessa Vallely has made it to the top of her profession and is among a growing number of women who are, as Labour’s Yvette Cooper put it, ‘leaning out’ to paraphrase the popular book by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. These are women who know first hand the barriers and challenges faced by women during their working lives and want to help them up the ladder. They include the likes of Ruby McGregor Smith and Wendy Hallett, leading lights of the Women’s Business Council, and leaders of their profession such as Lucy Scott Moncrieff, former president of the Law Society.
Vanessa, who heads the women’s networking organisation WeAreTheCity.com, has just written a book, Heels of Steel, which includes not only her life story but a guide to climbing the corporate career ladder. Hard work and planning take centre stage. She calls on women to have a “personal mission statement” of what they want for their lives, why they want it and when. Then comes goal setting, which Vanessa also uses for her family. She says: “Managing your career and your life is a bit like a business, and because there are similarities it is helpful to mirror some of the same processes a business would have.”
There is a strong emphasis on building relationships and networking, in life as in business, for instance, building school run networks in case of childcare crises. Other tips include getting a mentor or becoming one and using social media for self promotion and networking.
Networks feature strongly in many progressive companies’ initiatives for building the female talent pipeline, something which is of growing concern after recent figures showed that, although more women are being promoted to the boards of top companies in the UK, most are external non-executives. There has been barely any movement on women executives on the boards of FTSE companies. Pressure is rising for change as diversity rises higher up the corporate agenda, in part boosted by Lord Davies’ 2015 target of 25% women on the boards of the UK’s leading companies. It is also increasing due to pressure from clients and investors for change. The fund management group Legal & General, for instance, has said it will consider voting against the chairs of FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards which do not make progress on getting more women on their boards of the UK’s leading companies. It is also increasing due to pressure from clients and investors for change. The fund management group Legal & General, for instance, has said it will consider voting against the chairs of FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards which do not make progress on getting more women on their boards by 2015.
Many HR leaders are making huge progress with building their female pipeline, even if it is particularly challenging in some professions. External recognition for the progress being made can provide a crucial boost. Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards, for instance, have this year included a new Award on career progression aimed at promoting best practice. One sector where there has been more of a challenge than most is law which has a reputation for a long hours culture. However, even there change is happening.
The law firm Baker & McKenzie is a case in point. It has made a lot of progress since it first set up its diversity committee in 2003. It now has both a BakerWomen group focusing on female career progression and a BakerBalance group whose remit covers issues such as parental support, disability and most recently to mental health on which a report is being prepared.
Jenny Barrow, head of diversity and corporate social responsibility, says that the traditional career path for lawyers tended to overemphasise financial metrics and underemphasise the importance of other skills such as emotional intelligence, management skills and the ability to connect with clients. “That is changing, “ she says. In part this is due external pressure. “We are a people business, a professional services firm,” says Jenny. “If we cannot connect to our clients they will find someone else. Being a great technical lawyer is not enough in itself. Clients know they can get that from a host of firms. What we are seeing more and more now is that they want advisers who also reflect their own values as an organisation.”