Yorkshire Post, 19 October 2007
By Marilyn Stowe
WHEN I started out in business in 1982, female company directors were a novelty in Yorkshire. Launching my practice meant taking out a bank loan – which resulted in “pre-emptive” action from a cynical and incredulous bank manager. He made weekly inspection visits to my East Leeds office, based in a converted cobbler’s shop, to scrutinise every detail of how I ran my firm.
As I mark 25 years in business, I also celebrate how times have changed. Now a quarter of the country’s self-employed are female – and 68 per cent of Britain’s 50 largest companies have women on their boards.
I applaud the fact that Yorkshire’s women are the most successful of all: research in 2006 revealed that the region generates more female entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the UK.
What is more, they encounter the fewest barriers to success, with three in 10 facing obstacles compared to a national average of four in 10.
These are all major milestones which, to my delight, consign my old bank manager and his archaic attitude to the mists of time.
My own client list is a measure of this transformation. As a family lawyer, my practice handles divorce cases, which can entail substantial assets.
Twenty-five years ago, almost all the wealthy women I represented were housewives. Over the years, they have been gradually replaced by successful businesswomen, serial entrepreneurs, MDs and senior-level directors.
The Prime Minister’s address at this year’s Labour Party Conference set me thinking what the future holds for businesswomen. Gordon Brown was applauded after he confirmed for a second time that paid maternity leave was to be extended to a year. Such developments contrast starkly with the battles women encountered a quarter of a century ago.
Back then, we had witnessed the introduction of equal pay, anti-discrimination legislation and the election of Margaret Thatcher as our first female prime minister.
Even so, we still had to behave like macho men if we wanted to be taken seriously.
Here in Yorkshire, there was even a standard uniform: drab, matching black jackets and skirts, teamed with clumpy court shoes, were de rigueur.
The majority of competitors, suppliers and associates were
men, and for women like us, many of them fell into one of two categories. There were the paternal types who made it patently clear that they regarded female directors as doomed curiosities with few business abilities.
The second category comprised the downright rude: I was called a “bitch” on more than one occasion.
Thankfully, such behaviour is now (almost!) unthinkable.
Compared with the scarcity of opportunities 25 years ago, women’s leadership skills are now honed through a plethora of training, development and mentoring organisations.
There is also a proliferation of women’s networking forums. Led by Etta Cohen, Yorkshire Forward’s “Forward Ladies”, which supplies business support, a confidential mentoring service and networking events, is a phenomenal success story with more 3,000 members.
Attitudes to children and childcare have also improved dramatically. When my son, Benjamin, was born 19 years ago, there was still a stigma attached to working mothers and nursery facilities were few and far between.
I was notching up 100-hour weeks, had to bring my son into work in a carrycot – and was derided by many who said I should have stayed at home with him. Juggling everything was a constant challenge: whenever a client arrived for an appointment, a member of my staff would have to bundle the carrycot outside and take my baby for a walk.
If I were starting out today, would I do anything differently? The answer is no. It’s also heartening to see that this “go-getting” attitude is as evident in today’s businesswomen as it ever was.
Women in business have previously identified self-belief and determination as the factors most crucial to entrepreneurial success.
In some sectors such as engineering and manufacturing where women continue to be under-represented, they still need plenty of “grit”.
There is, however, still a long way to go. Despite record numbers of female board executives, only two per cent of UK executive directors are women and the number of men in business outweighs women by 73 to 27 per cent. Only 10 per cent of women are likewise on the boards of FTSE 100 companies.
So, although the business climate may have become more accessible to women over the last 25 years, now, as then, success remains the province of those with the determination, drive and tenacity to ignore the detractors and cast aside self-limiting beliefs to conquer all that lies before them.