WOMEN AND POWER. by Julia Gregory

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WHY are so many talented women reluctant to take on power? Is it a dirty word which has frightened them off? Women in Journalism explored what power means not only for the individual, but how it can be used to influence the workplace, at a special gathering kindly hosted by the Fortune Theatre, part of the Ambassador Theatre Group, in London on November 2nd.

Our keynote speaker was Sylvia Hewlett, CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York, and a Columbia University expert on gender issues. Hewlett said a study of 30 to 50 year-old women in the UK, US and Germany found that women want five things: to excel, have significant power, but also to align their careers with meaning and purpose, to empower themselves and to flourish.

However these ambitious women are often conflicted. She said anxiety about how the top job appears to them puts them off – while 41 per cent of men are “actively seeking that next job”. And it’s not babies who are holding women back; childless women are also shying away from those key roles.

She said the exception was African-American women who were not uncomfortable about the concept of power. “They have been gunning for it for generations. They are totally perplexed that white women have a problem with it.” She added: “Well- educated white women are skittish about power and do not understand the agency, impact and exhilaration it gives you.”

Head of Channel 5 News and WIJ committee member Cristina Nicolotti Squires, said despite a queasiness about the word power, it has the ability “to make life better for you”. And because as the boss she takes time out for activities such as her children’s sports day, other staff feel they can too.

Theatre impresario Rosemary Squire, a founder and joint CEO of the Ambassador Theatre Group, said that the shift towards equality will not happen when there’s the first woman director at places such as the National Theatre, but when there’s the second and third. And, like any other boss, you can set an example: “It’s ok to job  share, it’s ok to work part time because if the boss can do it, it’s ok.”

Caroline Kean, who is the only female partner and head of litigation at law firm Wiggin, said when she started working flexibly because of family commitments, that older partners were not happy –  until they saw that her “billing” of clients was on a par with those who worked from 8 to 8.   Kean said technology has been liberating, with mobile phones and Blackberries changing the game and making it easier to work away from the office. So too, was the realisation that “if I’m in court and a client rings, nobody would have thought it wrong [that I’m not available]. I think it’s a great time to be a woman and I want to pass that on”. However, she added: “It took me ages to see that other women were not keeping up. I began to campaign for flexible working. Now it has been rebranded so it’s ok. It’s called ‘agile working’.”

Professor Dame Carol Black, a leading doctor and the principal of Newnham College Cambridge, said her profession is still “rarified at the top” with just a quarter of the top 200 jobs in medicine going to women, and still no female head of the BMA (British Medical Association).  Like other panel members she advocated sponsorship – colleagues who will speak up for you and aid promotion into more senior roles: “Mentors are fine, but you need sponsors.” She described life skills classes at Newnham College which look at resilience, dealing with failure and criticism, staying motivated, negotiation and money. And she advised people to step up and take on power. “You must not run away from it. It’s not to be afraid of.”

Hewlett agreed that sponsorship is crucial, and while many women have mentors fewer have sponsors, where the relationship is more of a “two way street” with sponsors picking “people like them who are going to make them look better”. Sponsors look for people who can perform, are loyal and can demonstrate enthusiasm for the team and become part of the posse a sponsor might build up around them. “Sponsorship is how power is transferred in an organisation,” she pointed out, with it giving women 15 per cent more chance to advancement to the top jobs. Women should also sell their currency or skill sets, rather than highlight the gaps in their skills, she said.

Emma Barnett, a broadcaster and Women’s Editor of the Daily Telegraph, picked up on the issue of money. She said women need to get better at negotiating and advised asking to be benchmarked and to demonstrate how you  are of value to the business – and not to feel guilty about earning more, as one person she coached on negotiating skills had.   She advised women to have antennae like snails – her TEDx talk is called  The Secrets That Snails Can Teach Us About Success – to spot the invisible barriers and learn how to advocate for themselves. “Nobody wants you anyway unless you put yourself forward,” she warned, and pointed out you have to have a strategy or you are at risk of losing sight of your ambition.

Women in Journalism chair Eleanor Mills said with power “you do have the capacity to change the agenda”. At the Sunday Times she was able to give coverage to campaigns about female genital mutilation and she told the audience “I feel really proud that I could use my power to make the world a better place.”

The panellists said their power meant they could help others by direct sponsorship and championing a more diverse perspective. Hewlett cited Christine Lagarde’s  decision to look at why the IMF was blind to the financial crisis, with people at the top all drawn from very similar backgrounds and “no diversity of thought”, while people with less power were warning of the impending crash. As Hewlett added: “People outside on the sidelines didn’t have any power.”