Julia speaks out for the invisible business woman

  • Julia Gash
  • 12th December 2012

As I read through the Sheffield Telegraph Business Review 2012 I was underwhelmed by the total lack of businesswomen featured in the publication.  Faced with everything male and pale, it wasn't how I knew business in our city to be and so I projected my outrage over how women had been written out of Sheffield's business success and history and put pen to paper. Here's what I wrote, some of which the Sheffield Telegraph published a couple of weeks later in their weekly newspaper:

The Sheffield Telegraph Business Review 2012, compiled from articles written by a selection of Sheffield’s business leaders is considered to be a snapshot of our city’s business community, its activity, hopes and fears.  Indeed its title indicates that this publication is what business in our city is all about.

Every single article was written by a man, every single photo is of a businessman, every single interview and quote comes from the mouth of a man.  Page after page, the message is clear, Sheffield’s many businesswomen do not play any part in our city’s economic activity or future and if they do, then their opinion is not sufficiently valued to be included in the annual business review.

We do however know this is not the case: The Master Cutler is a woman; The High Sherriff and one of the nation’s business leaders, is a woman, The President of the Junior Chamber International is a woman, Sheffield Star Entrepreneur of the Year is a woman (as were all the finalists).  These are all women excelling in business in our city yet they, along with many other successful businesswomen, are not included in this publication.

I remember writing this same letter criticizing the absence of women in The Business Review several years ago, complaining that the publication is intrinsically sexist by a lack of a female presence. So why is this such a vital issue to me, as I feel it should be to everyone in this city?

The message The Sheffield Business Review is giving to our city’s girls and young women is clear: female business leaders and spokeswomen do not exist.  Where are the women who will inspire them and with whom they can identify?  As we’re trying to encourage women to take the risk to become entrepreneurs or to break through the glass ceiling to join boards and senior management, this publication offers no direction or reassurance and in itself is a concrete barrier to the hopes and dreams of Sheffield’s future businesswomen. 

A consistent theme throughout The Review was the concern for the survival and growth of businesses in a continuing, challenging economy.  Don’t we therefore need to ensure that our businesses have the best management structure to do this job successfully?  It is proven that mixed gender teams at all management levels perform better than single sex groups.  Every company that took part in The Review fielded a male spokesperson. This is an indication that their senior management structure does not include a woman who can represent their organization.  It’s also a sign that they have created their own barrier to financial success by recruiting, developing and promoting staff in a way that disadvantages or disengages women.

There is plenty of evidence on a national scale to indicate that women, capable of senior management positions, are leaving employment or not putting themselves forward for promotion.  The main reason for this is considered to be the conflict between raising a family and coping with the demands of a high powered career.

I believe that Sheffield’s business community is not deliberately discriminating against women.  The Review however is testimony to the fact that our business leaders do exclude women albeit on a subtle level and in a way, which they themselves are ignorant.

The language employed in a job description for a senior management position may not resonate with women, often pertaining to traditional male characteristics, not female.  A business culture, which often involves out-of-hours networking, centred round a bar or golf course, may appeal less to a woman … it certainly holds no attraction to me!   

Do women actually want to be ballsy and exude bravado?  I don’t think so.  Do women want to succeed in business, be valued for their skills and expertise but in a culture where they can be true to their own personalities?  Yes. This spirit of equality does not exist yet in Sheffield, and until it does, then this is a loss to the city in many ways, both social and economic to name two.

Recruiting and developing talent to senior management positions is incredibly expensive for any business.  To lose half of that talent because the culture and employment structure of a business does not adequately understand and support its female employees as they try to reconcile family commitments with career progression is a financial liability that will be too great to bear in an increasingly challenging economic environment.

I therefore don’t fly the flag of feminism idly.  If Sheffield’s business leaders don’t position talented and skilled women at senior management levels alongside their male colleagues, then they themselves are a liability to our city’s economy.

This is no quick fix.  Promoting women to fulfill a CSR objective is not the answer.   Tokenism will simply result in the more vocal and visible women occupying these positions and not the talented and skilled men and women that are being overlooked by their bosses. This is because the attributes they value often come from a narrowly defined field and excludes those that connect with women.

I often wonder what business visitors to our city must think when they pick up such a publication.  I find it hard to imagine that the Toronto, Frankfurt, Milan, Chicago or Bordeaux Business Review would feature no women.  As a businesswoman in this city the message I am given is loud and clear:  I don’t belong here.

I therefore hope that in a few years time I will not need to write this same letter to The Sheffield Telegraph.  If I do then it will also be the case that the worst fears of those business leaders that have taken part in the 2012 will have come true, simply because a city’s economy cannot prosper if it so obviously neglects half of its talent.