To mark International Women’s Day 2022, we spoke to Stevie Spring CBE, Chairman, British Council, about her illustrious career and her experiences as a female leader.
Read on to get some real-world advice on how to navigate some of the challenges and start to break stereotyping in the workplace.
Besides her work with the British Council, Stevie is the Chairman of Mind (the mental health charity), serves on the board of the world's largest consumer cooperative The Co-op Group, and is an investor/advisor to two tech companies. She has previously been CEO of two global media companies ; chaired both the Groundwork Federation and BBC Children in Need, and served on the boards of Kent University, Arts and Business, and the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.
As a woman in leadership, have you ever witnessed or experienced gender bias in your career?
I’ve been in business for 45 years so of course, I have witnessed enormous change. But the short answer is yes. We all have.
I remember my first boss saying to me, ‘You need to learn shorthand and typing, otherwise you’ll never get anywhere.’ Even though I had a prestigious first-class honours degree in law.
I spent most of my senior management career being addressed in correspondence as Mister Spring - not just because I go by the name ‘Stevie’, but there was an assumption of men in the positions I held. Having spent my early career wearing vertiginous heels because I thought that if I didn’t take up ‘space’ I lacked presence and authority; I'm five foot four and everybody else in the room seemed to be at least a foot taller than me!
I’m talking about gender issues as if it were all in the past, but as recently as a couple of years ago I remember walking into a room where I was leading on a deal closing. I was very slightly late, and I arrived to face forty people sitting in a massive legal boardroom. Not only was every single one male, but they were all white and within a very narrow scan of age range. All of them were dressed in a plain white or blue shirt, with a very typical tie. And I just burst out laughing. The senior partner turned to me and said, 'What's funny?', and I said 'It’s 2019...that's what's funny!’
It’s true (especially in many Western countries) that we have made real progress. The UK Equal pay Act is over 50 years old. But we’re still at least as many years away from achieving equal pay. Because traditional ‘female’ skills – caring, nurturing, even teaching - are undervalued compared to many traditionally male skills – ones that require physical strength. Interestingly, I think some degree of ‘feminisation’ of the workplace has come through, post-pandemic, in a way that I applaud.
Some of the so-called ‘feminine’ values in the workplace – humanity, humility, humour, hope, empathy – are increasingly important, particularly with dissipated and remote people management.
How do you think women can break bias especially in the workplace?
What can women do for themselves? Well, the first thing we have to do is be assertive about our own value and values. If we don't speak up, we can't be heard.
I also think we have to take responsibility for our own development.
We need to break out of our comfort zones. Get broad experience. Put ourselves out there and volunteer for the tough assignments. Do and learn; recognise always the difference of accumulated experience.
Having, say, five years’ experience, is not the same as having one year repeated five times. Try new things. Take new opportunities.
For example, since age 16, I've had a twin-track career: a not-for-profit role alongside my commercial day job. That put me through an exponential learning curve; it multiplied my experience – because you learn from exposure to different organizations, different leadership styles. And arguably, as a volunteer – as a charity trustee, a school governor and so on – you learn things like board dynamics, audit, risk management, remuneration and reward policy, in a safer environment. Learnings and skills you can then bring back to your main job.
We’re all busy people and we have to balance our lives, but I think an investment in on-the-job personal development pays dividends. The more experiences we have outside our comfort zones, the more confident we become.
I'm a firm believer that just because you haven't done something, doesn't mean you can't, it just means you haven't yet. There’s a first time for everything. And skills are transferable.
It’s a very female trait to, say, look at a job specification or a job ad and go ‘Well, I can only do four of those six things. I'm not going to apply.’
If somebody says to me, as an example, ‘Can you scuba dive?’ my answer isn't ‘no’; my answer is ‘I don't know. I expect so, because I'm a really strong swimmer; I can manage my breathing, and I'm not scared of being under water.’ So the answer is 'probably, but I haven’t...yet.'
I try to assume that I am going to be able to do something if I have the basic skills.
I also encourage everyone, not just women, to bring their whole selves to work. To be the best and most confident You that you can be, rather than trying to pretend to be what you’re not. A second rate someone else.
And, do, always remember to be kind to yourself. Prioritise self-care. As I often say, you need to put your own oxygen mask on in a plane before you can help others.
Talking about being kind to oneself, the onus of juggling multiple roles almost always falls on the woman – at work and at home. What do you think is the best way to work through such pressure?
It's always with a female lens that we talk about not being able to have it all. The primary responsibility for child care, parental care, falls to the women; we are the only people who can physically give birth. I'm a firm believer that you can have it all, but you need to be very good at balancing, that is, not trying to have it all at the same time. You can physically only be in one place at one time, so don't beat yourself up or think ‘I should be at home, or I should be at work, or I should be doing this, or I should be doing that.’ Try and leave that guilt behind, because we are all amazing and everybody has a unique lens through which we look at and solve problems.
We’ve got some really difficult problems to solve in the world. We need the best brains to do it. At least half of those best brains are in women, so we need to make the workplace flexible.
Fix the world, not fix the women.
Lastly, what does breaking the bias mean to you?
First of all, we have to recognise that although in the developed world, much of the bias is unintended and casual, on a global scale, gender equality is at different stages. That we are each at a different point of the journey.
For example, I am talking through the lens of a relatively advanced UK where it's theoretically illegal and unlawful to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexuality.
But there is still bias in all of us, in every decision we make, in every interaction we have.
We use stereotypes as a shortcut. We respond to visual and verbal clues and take decisions influenced by that ‘prejudgement’. Women's voices tend to be higher pitched, for instance, and we’re attuned to believe that that lacks gravitas.
The starting point to breaking bias is recognising that unconscious bias exists, and trying to be conscious of it.
Unconscious bias training helps us all recruit, retain, promote and develop the best and most diverse workforce.
So when it comes to breaking the bias, it's about self-awareness; it’s about knowledge, and it's about being the change you want to see.
Happy International Women’s Day!