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24 June 2015

Heather Jackson

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“We need patience but not platitudes if we’re going to achieve gender balance in business”

An Interview with Heather Jackson, pioneer for gender balance in business.

Heather Jackson is the Founder and Chair of An Inspirational Journey, which supports organisations to drive forward their performance through better balanced business and sustainable talent management solutions. For many years she has thrown the spotlight onto the business case for a better gender balance. She’s a straight-talking pragmatist who thinks things are moving in the right direction at last. But are they, in marketing and communications? Most agencies look well balanced at the junior levels and exactly the opposite at the top. With this in mind, we asked Heather for her point of view about where we are in the drive to see better gender balance across all businesses and particularly at the senior end.

Heather starts by saying it’s important to acknowledge that we have made progress. ‘My grandmother has just died aged 92 and she remembers women being given jobs in the war only to have to give them back to men after the war. We have to be glad that  women now have a choice to work in whatever they want to work in,’ she says. The biggest sign of this progress is that this is no longer a gender or a women’s issue it’s a business issue and a talent issue. We need more women at the top because we need better performing teams at the top.

When Heather started out in business having women in senior positions was considered important because it ‘looked good’ – in other words there was tokenism. Heather says, ‘Now we have proof that it’s better for business to have diverse teams at every level and that’s a massive enabler. Everyone needs them. If your company isn’t embracing it then make them or move. It’s unsustainable.’

Is there one compelling piece of proof for this point of view? ‘No, there is no one silver bullet,’ she admits. But she is buoyed by the number of different silver bullets being fired off at the moment. ‘The FTSE 100 is a beacon but now we need every company to do it,’ she says. Heather advocates targets rather than quotas and thinks that there are men at the top that can help to drive them. ‘There are still 94 men at the top of the FTSE 100 and each of them could really make a difference,’ she says. She also thinks it would be more meaningful not just to count the number of female CEOs but to count the companies with talent management programmes at middle and senior level because this is where the real change starts.

Moving the emphasis downwards from the board room is a crucial development in the path to gender balance. ‘We need women in all senior positions and not just on boards,’ says Heather. ‘Talented men and women are in short supply at the moment. We need to bring all the levels into the fold to improve performance – financial and behavioural.’ Heather suggests that we owe a lot to HR departments and head-hunters but that they have sometimes almost molly-coddled us by helping and taking the lead rather than ensuring we all take responsibility, particularly the middle and senior ranking managers that lead teams and develop the talent they work with. In other words it’s not just the CEO that has to take responsibility for making the business better balanced – we all have a personal responsibility.

Heather prescribes a little patience now. While there are still obstacles to true gender balance (such as transparency in pay and countering gender bias) we know the problems so we can address them. ‘We are nowhere near solving it yet but things are changing and I believe the next generation has a great future.’ The Balanced Business Forum, which is produced by An Inspirational Journey, takes place in October. It is the worlds first gender balanced leadership conference bringing together current and aspiring male and female leaders to challenge the status quo of talent management and effective leadership. It’s an incredible opportunity to network and share insight about improving gender balance in business. The theme is driving performance. At the moment there are 22 different sectors of business signed up to contribute. There is not a single company from the marketing or communications sector. We still have a lot of work to do.

Heather Jackson will be speaking at the back2businessship programme, organised by f1, Starcom MediaVest and Golin, in September. For more information about this programme for mothers that are returning to work at senior level in the marcomms sector please click here.

For information about the Balanced Business Forum in October click here.