Snakes, ladders and leading with the heart

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By Sairah Ashman

Nicky Dulieu, CEO of retailer Hobbs, has recruited a nearly all female board since joining the brand in 2008. Aside from the terrific performance of the brand, which demonstrates again that board diversity is good for business, Nicky has done something powerful to benefit women across her business and the wider industry. She has created a set of role models.

This is a subject close to my heart – when I first started working, there seemed to be few positive female role models I could look to for inspiration and feel a personal connection with. In fact, last weekend I was invited to give a talk to an audience of women as part of TEDxFulham Women (#TEDxFulhamWomen) and I chose to look at exactly this issue.

Role models help give us a sense of what’s possible. They have the power to ignite our aspirations, encourage us to stretch our wings, try new things and go further than we ever imagined.

For women in particular, I believe they are essential.  Studies prove again and again that a lack of women in visible positions creates an aspiration gap.  A recent report by McKinsey highlights this disparity, with only 46% of women aspiring for top roles compared to 64% of men. 

Visibility is key. And the news that Marjorie Scardino of Pearson and Cynthia Carroll of Anglo American are stepping down cuts the number of women CEOs of FTSE 100 companies in half and raises concern.

Scratch deeper and you learn that while women represent over half the UK workforce, they make up less that 16% of board members and just 3% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. They also earn less, with the difference between men and women’s median pay in the UK standing at just below 10%.  At the current rate, pay equality will not be reached until 2040.

There’s clearly a constellation of interconnected issues – structural, social and economic – that need addressing in order to resolve this.  But for me, role models and mentoring are fundamental to effecting change.  And something we can all directly influence, regardless of gender.  As Anita Roddick once said ‘if you think you’re too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito’.

My own personal journey has been colourful, challenging and rewarding.  Finding a way to be yourself, act in tune with your personal values, do satisfying work and make a positive impact in the world are things we can all relate to.  Role models help guide our journey.  

Oprah Winfrey believes ‘for every one of us that succeeds, it’s because there’s someone to show the way’.   I agree.

So I’d like to put a question to you.  Who’s inspiring you, and more importantly, who are you inspiring?


Sairah Ashman is COO of Wolff Olins.

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