Inspiring Women to inspire each other

CBI Annual Dinner-62

Read a blog by Katja Hall, the CBI’s new deputy director-general

Just last week I gave the opening speech at the CBI’s annual First Women Awards – a night hosted alongside Real Business that looks to give women’s achievements pride of place. The awards aim to unearth and recognise women whose successes and individual actions constitute real ‘firsts’ – things that help to remove barriers to female progression and open up opportunities for others to follow.

This year’s shortlist included the likes of Jean Llewellyn, Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear and Justine Roberts, Founder of Mumsnet – with other inspirational attendees like 2012 Olympic gold medallist Katherine Grainger. These leaders are inspiring role models for young women today. But more than that, many of them have had to break the mould and challenge gender stereotypes as part of following their own chosen career paths.

Because – like it or not – there are still careers and business sectors which are viewed as male-dominated, as much as there are those that are seen to be the sort of jobs that women do. And as a result of this split – what’s called ‘occupational segregation’ in the jargon – girls and women can be put off from pursuing routes which they might otherwise find fulfilling.

This starts a long time before anyone reaches the workplace. It’s something that begins early on – in schools, colleges and universities.

Just look at who does what at university: just 13% of engineering places, 18% in technology and 22% in mathematics & computer science were taken by women. But for nursing and education courses, women made up nearly 90% of all places. That’s not to say that I think some courses are ‘proper’ and others aren’t – just that I’m not buying that there aren’t more women who’d enjoy, and thrive, on courses that involve tech or engineering if we did more to get them involved earlier.

Tackling this imbalance, as highlighted in our diversity paper Building on Progress published last week, is about giving young women the chance to get live insights into the wide variety of opportunities and pathways they have open to them – and inspiring them to pursue these. That’s why we’re right behind the Inspiring Women campaign.

And business also has an important role to play to carry this support into the workplace. Because it’s not only girls in school who need role models. As the CBI’s deputy director-general, I want to encourage businesses to continue to drive forward the diversity agenda across the board with well-aimed action as well as well-intentioned words.

We’re making progress. From numbers in the boardroom to mentoring support right throughout firms, things are changing. But we can always do more. That’s one reason why, last year, the CBI launched its own Women’s Network. It’s been a huge success to date, with speakers from different walks of life discussing the key challenges women face in the workplace alongside CBI staff. And the reason we set it up goes beyond just a statement of our values – it makes good business sense too: it’s helping to get the best out of people and build better teams right across the organisation.

If a problem shared is a problem halved, it’s also true that an experience shared is an opportunity doubled. That’s what we have to gain if we get this right: the chance for every woman – in school and at work – to see what’s on the horizon and have the chance to reach for it.

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