My first Women Work conference

Hands up. I know it’s late to be filing my views on my first Women Work conference last month, but I was lucky enough to have a period of leave booked just afterwards for the duration of which I was encouraged to switch off from work. The habit of reading news stories and emails last thing before going to bed and first thing in the morning is a tough one to break – albeit most relaxing – but having returned from holiday I feel most recharged.

One thing I couldn’t get out of my head while away was how much I had enjoyed the conference. Dame Fiona Woolf as the guest speaker in the morning was incredible, and shared some stories of casual discrimination from her career that sounded like episodes from a toe-curlingly bad 1970s sitcom. How she overcame those barriers to become president of the Law Society and Lord Mayor of London is an inspiration. While thankfully I – and no one else at Sodexo – should share her negative experiences of the workplace, I did sympathise with her as a fellow tall person!

After Fiona’s talk, the 100 or so delegates split off into four groups depending on what development opportunities they had chosen at registration. Ever eager to brush up on my presentation skills, I found myself with a handful of colleagues taking a crash course in how to get your point across. In pairs we had to come up with a short presentation on a random object using a simple formula. We chose a pot of Tipp-Ex, but I wouldn’t have corrected a single second of the talks from my peers. Creative and passionate about their work, those who got up and spoke after such short preparation demonstrated the flair you can find all over the company.

During the day I met a few of these colleagues by encouraging them to take part in the Department of Work and Pensions campaign #notjustforboys, which raises awareness of women in traditionally male-dominated roles. I managed to talk Helen (above), Eleanor, Shauna and Jane into having their photos taken.

Held at a client site in Macclesfield, the Sodexo team there put on an excellent lunch before we dove into the second workshop. I took ‘beliefs and confidence’ hosted by Talking Talent, which turned out to be a very useful exercise in questioning your own internal barriers to forwarding your career.

Sylvia Metayer, president of Sodexo international large accounts, then presented the latest research from Sodexo Group. The findings offered an excellent business case for gender balanced management teams, with profitability, growth and engagement all higher where there was a 40 to 60 per cent gender mix. Sylvia’s own journey is fascinating. Responsible for what are no doubt Sodexo’s biggest and most complex global contracts, Sylvia makes time for her children, the last of which she had at 42. She found the largest challenge came not from male quarters but from female, and there was audible agreement from the conference that being made to feel guilty by other women about work/life choices was a common phenomenon. Sylvia’s advice: don’t feel guilty, whether you work or not ‘guilt is to motherhood as grapes to wine.’

The day ended with a captivating panel debate on encouraging men to engage in gender balance. Facilitated by the executive sponsor of Sodexo’s gender workstream Neil Murray, the panel consisted of Sodexo UK & Ireland chief executive Debbie White, author and military expert Tom Clonan and career consultant Chris Martin.

What stood out for me, and many attendees I’ve spoken to since, was Tom Clonan’s explanation of how gender balanced military units performed better than single sexed. Despite women being considered among their most dangerous enemies during the Northern Ireland conflict, state security forces fought exclusively with all male teams.

For the non-Sodexo panel members, the Q&A session at the end of the formal debate was a window into the openness of the company. Certainly, when one delegate questioned Neil on his all male senior leadership team representatives at a past event, one panel member was moved to comment as much!

I’m sure all the delegates would join me on insisting credit must go to Women Work network chair Janine McDowell, Vicki Franklin and the team for putting together such a fantastic event. Veterans are saying it was one of the best yet. It will be difficult to top next year, but so long as we build on the number of men there it will be a victory!

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