She has been CEO of Sightsavers since 2005: under her leadership, Sightsavers has expanded significantly, treating millions of people and advocating for policy reforms around the world. To coincide with International Women’s Day, we asked her a few questions about her career at Sightsavers.
It is certainly true that fewer women than men are at the top levels – particularly in business. I’m not sure I like the idea that women should ‘fight harder’, or that promotion should be down to fighting at all.
I think there are significant barriers to women: obviously there are issues related to their traditional caring roles (children and elderly relatives), which mean many women have a lot more on their plates than men during critical times when careers are built. I also know that a number of women (and increasingly men) I talk to are uneasy about the risk they are taking by going for the ‘top slot’. This isn’t just about work/life balance, but also about potential profile in the media, which in today’s world can turn nasty.
Actually, I don’t look to famous women to inspire me – I look to those I know well. People like Dame Barbara Frost, who worked wonders at Water Aid, without ever being aggressive or pushing herself forward personally. Or my friend Louise Nettelton, now very senior at Deutsche Bank, who has survived some extremely difficult times (such as the fall of Enron) and, with determination and sheer Yorkshire grit, come out triumphant.
I think the surprise is perhaps how little I have experienced. I worked in the oil industry for many years, which is very male dominated, including with traders, but I was promoted often and always on merit. There were one or two who tried to use my gender to stop my progress, but fortunately they were never successful. Occasionally I have been frustrated by phrases like ‘she is emotional or strident’ (if I were a man they would have said I was angry), and obviously when I was younger there were the occasional inappropriate comments. But nothing a cutting remark didn’t crush.
We look for the best people for the job and we don’t force-fit one gender or another for jobs to meet targets. We obviously monitor our gender balance for staff and trustees (as well as other diversity factors – at the moment I am concerned that we don’t have enough people with disabilities on staff). We try to ensure that we approach our policies and working practices in an inclusive way, such as being flexible where we can on working from home, and we check in with our employees regularly (and anonymously) to ask whether they are comfortable that we are an equal opportunities employer. If we then see that our gender balance is getting out of kilter, we try to look at the root cause of why this might be.