North East conference aims to promote women in business

As International Women’s Day fast approaches, some of the leading North East business leaders share their expertise

Kathryn Dishman, Director at KD Communications
Kathryn Dishman, Director at KD Communications

As International Women’s Day fast approaches, female hierarchy within British business is at the forefront of the political agenda.

Recent comments by Business Secretary Vince Cable on the role of women in senior positions have been well received by many. He said that achieving the target of 25% women in boardrooms across Britain by the end of this year is within sight, but quotas could be enforced if the objective is not met. As a result the Government is actively encouraging businesses across Britain to appoint women into senior roles as soon as possible.

The event, hosted by Newcastle University Business School on Friday, March 6, won’t just focus on discussing women in senior roles. Attendees will hear from speakers, including myself, about the whole business journey – from beginning a career to business start-ups and achieving success as female entrepreneurs.

This event is important for the region, not only as a means of highlighting the work that needs to be done to bring about equality for women in business, but also to talk about the good business being done in the region. In recent years, female entrepreneurs have been making a huge contribution our regional economy – 30% of North East business owners are women, above the national average of 28%, and women account for more than half the increase in self-employment since 2008. This is a great achievement and one that will be recognised and celebrated through events like this.

Jacqui Miller
Jacqui Miller

As speakers, we are aiming to relay our stories to help inspire others who may not yet have the courage to apply for their next promotion or look into starting a business venture. We will be talking about our experiences of climbing the corporate ladder – what barriers we have overcome, how we have built the solid foundations of our business in the North East maximising the career opportunities available to us.

From a personal perspective, I will discuss my key drivers for leaving a full-time role that offered me job security to take the plunge and start my own business and how I am adjusting to self-employed life six months on from building a business in its infancy. I have received a huge amount of support from the likes of Business Northumberland and the North East Chamber of Commerce so am incredibly thankful for the services the North East offers entrepreneurs.

The North East Chamber of Commerce is actively working with businesses across the region to pioneer equality for women in business, which has been one of its top policies since 2012.

One key issue being highlighted by the work is the fact that some of the North East’s most important industries are set to face serious skills shortages in the coming years. Construction and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) all have a significant under-representation of women in the workforce. The UK has the worst gender imbalance for engineers in the EU with just 8.7% female and while there are plans to create 17,500 jobs in construction in the next five years, only 11% of workers are women.

The IT sector is providing huge growth opportunities for the North East, yet just one in five employees in the sector are women.

Left: Alice Blackie; Right: Dr Joanna Berry
Left: Alice Blackie; Right: Dr Joanna Berry

Steps are being made to try to bridge this gap. In the wake of a recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) study which highlighted that North East women believe STEM careers are “not for them”, regional MP Chi Onwurah urged women to take up careers in engineering to help speed up the region’s economic recovery.

Businesses have also actively begun encouraging young women to take up careers in STEM. Just last month IT firm Accenture teamed up with Stemettes, an organisation set up to combat the lack of women in STEM, to host an event called #NEDigitalgirls. This event targeted 11 to 13-year olds in the North East by hosting range of talks, workshops and demonstrations designed to showcase opportunities available to women in the technology industry.

So what else can we do to help the next generation of female leaders realise their potential? There are some great networks and support organisations out there to help encourage young women careers, one of which is called Find Your Future. This is a new Northumberland-based network, founded by Jacqui Henderson, consisting of more than 40 women from businesses across the region. These women have come together to work alongside schools, colleges and youth groups to help young women in education gain confidence in their abilities and choose the right career path for them.

MP Chi Onwurah
MP Chi Onwurah

This is all great news for women in the region, but clearly there is more work to be done to help companies in the North East be more productive. Our businesses perform well, but without gender-balanced teams we will struggle to compete in national or international markets. Statistics show that companies with three or more women board directors achieve return on equity 45% higher than the average business. That’s because mixed gender teams are more productive than single gender ones.

The key is to maximise employment and career opportunities for women to ensure the relevant support is there for them to progress up the career ladder. Currently within some sectors across the North East there is not only a gender gap but also a skills gap that needs to be filled and workers, both male and female, who are needed to fill the gap.

International Women’s Day provides the perfect opportunity to discuss these issues so we can begin working together as a region to bridge the gender gap.

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