Sally Clark On The Importance Of Women In The Boardroom

"I found it so much better to surround myself with people who look and think differently to me."

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To kick off this week, we talked to Sally Clark, an Executive Coach and Non-Executive Director based in the UK. She reflects on the momentum change in respect to advancing women into leadership positions. She also discusses the challenges of achieving equity in different company cultures, particularly in the banking and Fintech industries. We conclude that on top of celebrating the successes of inclusion, there still needs to be determined action to getting women into influential C-suite positions.

Sally, have you noticed a momentum change in the last 5 years regarding women being encouraged and accelerated through workplaces? Or in your opinion, are they still treated as second to men?

“I have absolutely noticed a change in momentum with respect to the acceleration of women into senior roles and this is probably most visible when you look at the number of women on boards. I think there are many reasons underpinning this, including the outcomes of the Davies review and the work done by the 30% Club.

I would say that it has felt as though a lot of companies just paid it lip service – they would talk about promoting women, having women on succession plans and seen as high potential talent – but in reality nothing really got done. Of late, I would say that I have felt that people have woken up to the business benefits of a more diverse senior team and are actually doing something about it.

Having said that, progress is being made, I feel as though we are only part way through the journey. The first stage, getting women into non-executive roles on boards has gone well in the last few years and I am delighted to be surrounded by amazing women who are playing their part on the boards of both big and small companies across many sectors.

I also spend a lot of my time talking to women who are making the transition out of their executive roles and are well qualified and eager to play their part as non-execs.

However, the ‘acknowledged power positions’ on the board are the CEO, CFO, the Chair, and the Senior Independent Director. There is definitely still work to be done to get more women into these roles.

There are some notable successes now appearing at CEO and CFO level but across the whole of the industry they remain very much the minority. The last stage is to get more women into the C-suite; and specifically at the heads of business areas, rather than only in functional roles like HR, Compliance and Audit. More work is to be done here on nurturing the talent, offering up opportunities, and encouraging women to want to follow this route.

We should celebrate the successes that we can see have been made and it is great that we have surpassed some of those early targets – and I do really think that seeing success will breed more success.

For example, I have seen more companies asking the executive recruiters for more diverse lists of candidates, or even creating all female lists for key roles.

But we need to keep on this and not let up on the momentum we have made.”

What would be your reaction to someone saying: some of the jobs that were there for my son aren’t attainable anymore because of this diversity thing, how is that fair?

“There will always be a place for talented people, no matter what their demographic is.

But the reality is that status quo for the last 300 years has been that our daughters haven’t had a chance to realise their dreams of senior roles and so in swinging the pendulum the other way, it will take a while to get to the perfect equilibrium.

The situation in the UK should also be viewed through a wider context; there are countries where women aren’t allowed to work at all, and we should remember to keep a focus on this bigger battle which is facing so many women.

I do recall a similar question going to a male CEO – he was very articulate in acknowledging the privilege that men, particularly of his demographic, have had across history. He went as far as to suggest that if we’re talking about what is ‘fair’ in this context, all the jobs should be given to women for the next 30 years!”

Do you feel like equity is embedded in the company cultures you work with?

“What I would say is that today I am working in a wide range of companies in different stages of evolution towards equity. I am still somewhat amazed by just how broad that range is.

For some, it is front and centre of their thinking. Interestingly, in financial services the regulators have been vocal about their push for diversity and inclusion in the firms they regulate. And I’m seeing more and more that firms are embracing it and really seeing the benefit of getting it right; they are seeing the better decisions that come from more diverse teams.

I also do some coaching in industries where the progress feels years behind what is going on in the banks.

There are private companies in typically male run industries where I still hear women being called too “aggressive” and too “emotional” in a pejorative way. These things are held against them at promotion time and the women I work with can feel powerless to make any change.

Similarly, in the Fintech space, it has been a hard ride for a lot of women entrepreneurs to date, but there are increasingly more opportunities for women to access funds dedicated to support them.

The Rose report outlined in 2023 that more female founders had built more new businesses than ever before. And 190 firms have signed up to the Investing in Women Code representing over £1 trillion in assets under management.

These are great bold steps forward to building equity across the Fintech ecosystem.”

Have you felt more confident or energetic or committed to your work when there have been more people from diverse backgrounds and identities around you?

“I’m always more comfortable when I have diverse thinking in a room, especially when there are big decisions to be made.

I have always believed that I can’t possibly have all the facts, views, experiences that can contribute to great decision making – so much better to surround myself with people who both look and think differently from myself.

I did this in part when I was an Executive running the Audit function at Barclays. In addition, I recognised the huge benefit of gathering upwards feedback from my team via reverse mentoring.”

And finally, have you felt any sort of rise in allyship over the years?

“Yes, there has been a real growth in allyship – I have been so lucky to have worked for and with some really great men who have encouraged me to take risks, to go for opportunities and to be confident in my abilities.

But it isn’t just the men who have helped.

There is a famous saying from Madeleine Albright that “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women”.

I have always thought that paying forward the help I have received was an obligation to be taken seriously. It is one of my greatest joys now to continue to do this – to connect women, to encourage women, to support women and to watch them grow, be successful and shine.”

We all recognize the wins for women in every area of business, hopefully the strong momentum can keep going!

If you’re interested in further knowledge on the topic of women in leadership, here are 3 helpful resources:

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