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Both mentorship and self-advocacy needed to improve inclusion, say female leaders

Senior women leaders spoke at our International Women’s Day Women@Berkeley Network panel discussion on inspiring inclusion.

Fostering inclusion requires focusing on both mentorship and greater self-advocacy, according to a panel of senior female leaders. 

The insights were made at a panel discussion, convened by the Women@Berkeley Network as part of its International Women’s Day event programme, marking the 2024 theme of ‘inspiring inclusion’.

The panel line-up featured Claire Dickson, Chief Information Officer at DS Smith; Juanita Draude, Chief Growth Officer at Publicis Groupe; Carmen Janse van Rensburg, Head of Strategic Programmes at Anglo American; Caroline Hurndall, Director of Geopolitics at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO); and Melanie Stocker, Vice President of IT - Product and Supply Chain at Burberry. 

Navigating male-dominated environments

With such diverse industries represented on the panel, from sustainable packaging to mining to luxury fashion, the speakers had taken very different career paths. Still, their discussion raised various common challenges as women in their respective fields.

Most of the panellists have had to navigate male-dominated workplaces. Carmen began her mining sector career as a Big Four auditor before moving to an industry role. 

“I was the first female auditor on a mine site. I had to eat in a separate dining room because they didn't have space for me. I had to sleep somewhere separately,” she said.

Caroline, who first joined the then Foreign Office upon leaving university, experienced similar dynamics over the course of her career. 

“I was probably one of two women on a command team of 50,” she said of her time in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where she worked with the US Marines. 

She later became the first female British ambassador to Libya, which she credits partially to intentional efforts from Foreign Office senior leaders to promote more women to ambassador roles.

Even Melanie, when asked about working in the fashion industry, which is commonly perceived to be female-friendly, described issues with gender imbalance. 

“[Fashion] feels like a female-dominated world. But you need to look at where they are and that's where the challenge is. The further up you go, the thinner the air gets and the less women there are. If you think about some of the luxury conglomerates, they're currently all led by male CEOs. If I look at the tech space, it’s the same challenge. So I don't think we are any different.”

The importance of mentorship and role-modelling for promoting inclusion

All the panellists emphasised the importance of having mentors and allies who supported, challenged and encouraged them to pursue their goals. 

You cannot underestimate the power of just giving one person a chance, whether it’s through a mentoring programme, having a conversation or just giving them that opportunity – because that's why I'm here today. I can't overemphasise the importance of having that someone in your career: a mentor or even just a peer or a colleague that understands what you're going through.”

Carmen janse van rensberg, Anglo american

The speakers also shared how they themselves have in turn tried to mentor and support other women and create a culture of inclusion and allyship in their own organisations. 

Melanie said, “I had a couple of brilliant role models at Burberry, who listened and invested their time. And that's really stuck with me. It’s what I'm looking for in my team, in myself, in leadership and the people I work for. I take my role as a role model or mentor very, very seriously.”

Referring to her time in Afghanistan as a political advisor, working together with her US counterpart, Caroline discussed a similar experience. “We weren't in the military chain of command, so we were free to offer challenge and free to say what we thought. The general would turn to us and say, ‘what do you think? I care what you think.’ It meant that everyone else around the table had to care as well. I've really brought that with me – if you're chairing the meeting, it’s important to invite people to speak, who may not feel that they necessarily have a right to or are a bit scared.”

Advice for aspiring women leaders

The panellists discussed how their confidence has grown as they advanced in their careers and reflected on the importance of encouraging women to better self-advocate.

Prior to taking maternity leave for her second child, Claire was working at BP and aiming for the role of CIO. She worried the job would become vacant while she was on leave. “I actually had some quite difficult conversations. I went and saw the current CIO and various people in the business and I said to them, ‘Look, just because I'm going on maternity leave, I don't want you to think that I don't want that job. I would really love that job.’”

Three months into her maternity leave, she received a phone call from the CFO to invite her to interview for the job. She went on to become the first woman to hold the role at BP.

Claire added, “The lesson there is: don’t assume that people know what your ambitions are.  A lot of times, people assume things about you. ‘Oh, you're having a baby. You must want to have a side-step in your career.’ People need to hear from you on what you would like. If you want to take a side-step, tell them you want to take a side-step. If you want to be considered for a role, put yourself out there and say, ‘I just want to let you know that this is something I'm really interested in doing for these reasons, and I'd like to put my hat in the ring. I'd like to be considered.’”

Juanita advised women not to be afraid to take risks in their careers. 

It's a job. Nothing's irreversible. You can choose to do something else. And choose to take that risk. Because is it a risk or is it just something new and different that you'll never regret because at least you've tried it? At the end of the day, the choice is yours.” 

Juanita Draude, Publicis Groupe

Melanie shared similar comments. “You need to find an environment that you can thrive in, but you also need to go after opportunities. If you see one, go for it. Have the guts to do it. It is a bit of a challenge often with women. So it's something you have to learn.”

Inclusion is essential for better business performance

While inclusion is undoubtedly worth striving for from an ethical perspective, the discussion also highlighted how it leads to better business and organisational outcomes.

Caroline reflected on advice she received from Dame Margaret Anstee, the first female head of a peacekeeping mission for the UN. 

She said, don’t be afraid to use the fact that you're a woman. She meant, you're different from most people working in this sphere, that it was very male dominated. And that's okay because you're bringing something different to the table and that can really be to your advantage. I think that was my first experience that diversity and inclusion isn't just important for its own sake. It really helps bring challenge and difference.” 

CarolinE hurndall, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Juanita spoke about how diversity and inclusion leads to better collaboration and more creative and effective working, particularly in a matrix organisation. “I like to put different kinds of solutions together and different kinds of people in the room. Not one person is the same, and that is the most brilliant thing about working with lots of different people,” she said.  

Discussing the implications for the technology sector, and particularly for advances in artificial intelligence, Claire said, “We are in a world of AI where we are training models to think and make decisions on our behalf. It is more important than ever that we have diversity because that's how we get to good ethics and decision-making. Training those models has to be with a diverse range of minds. It needs to be a safe and inclusive space. It is really important for deciding where we're going to apply this technology. We need to think through what we're doing, and why we're doing it – and that shouldn't be groupthink.”

The Women@Berkeley Network

Attended by more than 100 women from a wide variety of organisations, the event was hosted by Berkeley partner and Women@Berkeley Network sponsor Sameera Simjee, while the discussion was moderated by consultant Katy Spencer.

Sameera said, “Wanting to grow our cohort of amazing women, we established Women@Berkeley to foster this talent. Our workplace is now 50:50 women to men. We've put in place a Women's Leadership Development programme with London Business School and Harvard in the US, welcomed two cohorts into our Women's Mentoring Programme, and launched our menopause policy last October. There's still much to do, but we're tooled up and more importantly, we are up for elevating our Network and our ambition even further. 

It’s been my absolute pleasure to open our Network to external guests through this event. Thank you to our amazing women clients, friends of Berkeley, and our fantastic panellists for joining us and sharing their stories.”

Sameera Simjee, The Berkeley Partnership