Beyond Barriers: ways to empower women in the workplace

We’ve come a long way in terms of gender parity in the last decades. But the path ahead remains precipitous, and strewn with obstacles.


This was the clear-eyed message shared by a majority of speakers and attendees at the London Business School EQUALL Conference: Beyond Barriers in February; an event that assembled hundreds of participants, alumni and some of the most prominent advocates – women and men – of workplace equity. While things have moved on since the mid-20th century, with major shifts in legislation, policy, corporate practice and societal expectation, women are still underrepresented in the upper echelons of decision-making. Similarly, career progression remains penalised by a systemic dearth of flexibility in organisations. Starting and raising a family is an inflection point for women, who still shoulder a disproportionate burden of responsibility in the home. Women leaving the workforce to have children will struggle to re-enter and drive their careers forward, where there is insufficient pliancy and support on the part of employers.


Standing up, speaking up

Overcoming the many, ongoing barriers to gender equity, we first need to be realistic about the scale of the challenge, says Rachel Barton, who leads Accenture’s Strategy business in Europe. A passionate advocate for change, Rachel addressed EQUALL attendees as part of panel titled, “More Than a Seat at the Table.”

The “victories” of the last 25 years or so have been hard won, she says, but they are still far from robust or adequate to the need.

In a world where Roe versus Wade is overturned, where women’s rights have “gone back in time in Afghanistan,” says Barton, there’s a real need to question the fragility of equality: “It’s not enough to sit in our echo rooms of privilege celebrating things like maternity pay or quotas, when for every forward movement we still see great backward steps. We have to guard against any false sense of security.”

That being said, driving forward momentum is also contingent on celebrating victories when they happen; in holding up achievements “for all to see,” she says. Accenture prioritises investing in companies that meet certain diversity criteria, and demonstrating how successful diversity it’s done right.

“When you are changing your environment from the ground up, you have to rely on the motivation of everyone,” Barton says. “But be careful not to undermine people’s authenticity and integrity by only celebrating the statistics and not the individuals.”

Building momentum also hinges on speaking up and challenging the behaviours and microaggressions that undermine women at work. So says VC investor and fellow panellist, Dr Fiona Pathiraja, who has experienced discrimination from male colleagues – being asked on one notable occasion who it is that writes her cheques. “I write my own cheques,” says Pathiraja, who has set up her own fund investing in deep tech, digital health and tech bio, with a focus on supporting women, women of colour and LGBTQ founders.

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“When I started out there were almost no other women investors.”

“When I started out there were almost no other women investors. Instead of complaining, I set up my own fund and started investing. There’s a lot of talk about supporting women, but actions speak louder than words. Women don’t need more talk. And I wanted to be a role model for other women.”

People have tried to “drag her down,” says Pathiraja, but she’s built confidence from time, experience and “tribe” of like-minded supporters, to self-advocate; and to call out detractors and discriminators where she encounters them. And if this doesn’t come naturally, take purposeful steps to manage your own responses, says angel investor Dorothy Chou, who is also Head of Public Affairs at AI systems firm, Deep Mind.

“When someone is rude or talks down to me, I’ve learnt to stop feeling discomfort or shame. I don’t react in the moment. Instead I put 15 minutes on that person’s calendar for the next day to explain that it can’t happen again. And how they react is their issue, not mine,” says Chou. If a colleague reacts negatively, her tactic is to ask them to “tell me more about it.”

“People will talk themselves into a loop or you will find out more about who they are. It’s so important to remember that when something is uncomfortable, it is real – you have felt it. And it’s not your job to patch it up. If you try to smooth things over, you don’t give the other person an opportunity to fix the problem.”


The importance of allies in retaining and advancing female talent

Pathiraja is as hard on herself as she is on any of her detractors, she says. Effecting any kind of positive change is just as contingent on holding up a mirror to the self and asking hard questions: What am I doing to support myself, and what am I doing to support others?

This kind of introspection is also critical in setting your own incentives for growth and deciding how much emotional energy you are going to expend on those things that are within your capacity to change, adds Chou. It’s a way of avoiding being “triggered” by things you can’t fix, she says.

Above all, getting behind change means retaining a sense of optimism about the future, says Barton: “Our world is volatile so seek happiness and progression every day.”

For organisations, she has a word of caution. Women leave the workforce at different points of inflection and reflection and businesses would do well to be more mindful of the moments in their careers when their female talent is making life decisions – or risk losing those women to their competitors.

“If you want to retain talent, you need to show women that the possibilities of moving from management to leadership are fruitful and pay well. You have to show them that progression exists and that they don’t need to look elsewhere.”

Barton’s colleague, Leigh Walter-James agrees. A Managing Director with Accenture, Walter-James is an advocate for inclusion and diversity and sponsors the Accenture Accent on Gender and Menopause initiatives in the UK. He believes that organisations and the men within them need to work harder at being allies to their female colleagues.

“Organisations don’t give opportunities to women because the opportunities are taken by men. But we should want the best from and for all of our people.” Making the shift to a more egalitarian system will require “seismic changes,” says Walters-James. And that means that men need to lend their voices to the debate and be “vocal and public about it.”

“It’s just the right thing to do. It takes courage, but the more men that do it, the more courage men will share. I believe that equality is not negotiable. I’m encouraged by the new generation who are thinking about things differently. I think it’s about momentum and groundswell,” he says.

Part of that groundswell of support and allyship are David Fogel of Alma Angels who back female tech founders, and Ludovico Giannotti, a senior associate with Paul Hastings LLP, member of the firm’s Diversity and CSR committee and driving force behind its partnership with Advance, one of the UK’s leading domestic abuse charities. They joined Walters-James and Anne-Marie Fleurbaaij, a Managing Director with Cambridge Investment Management Limited and co-founder of Girls Are INvestors (GAIN), to discuss Allyship in Action at EQUALL in February.

Allyship is open to anyone at any stage in their career or level of influence within their organisation, says Giannotti. And it’s key. In law firms in the UK, gender parity at entry drops radically by partner level, he says, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

“In my firm, we have implemented affinity networks and workshops which are attended by everyone, regardless of gender or seniority. Allies are visible and open to hearing about issues,” he says. “The more men that attend and show allyship, the more it demonstrates we are here to help.”

Fogel agrees, but stresses that allyship is something that cannot be forced. Instead, it should be “normalised.” The goal, he says, is to shift from an “us versus them” framework but to open up a conversation where everyone has a voice; and to ensure that the conversation is about values, and about rights.

Whether allies are self-appointed, recruited or normalised, what is clear is that men are as vital as women if barriers to equity are to be overcome and systemic change viable. Starting out in finance, Fleurbaaij had a number of vocal female advocates who took her under their wing. But she would not have remained in the sector if she hadn’t also had strong male allies: peers, co-workers, bosses and colleagues at other firms. Their example, as much as that of female role models, gave her the inspiration to reach back through GAIN and support young women – not just in finance and investment management, but in other risk-taking roles and sectors.

“When we first set up GAIN, the managers we met told us they just couldn’t find female talent. We said: nonsense, you are not looking hard enough. Over the last three years, we’ve seen a conversion rate of about 30% into investment-related roles through our internship programme,” says Fleurbaaij.

She is confident that the support and allyship across the industry that she and her organisation are able to supply can contribute to a real shift in understanding, attitude and behaviour; that employers can be persuaded to stop looking for people that “look like them.”

“The flywheel of understanding is starting to turn.”