The cult of Superwomen deters women in business


Baroness Gabby Bertin, a member of Theresa May's new task force to encourage women in their careers, said that the cult of superwomen "having it all" is dissuading women from starting their own businesses. She said it is time to "be honest" about "how challenging' it is to be successful in a career while having children.

She added: "All the talk of superwomen having it all is not very helpful to most women in this country."

The conservative peer was a key aide to David Cameron during his time in Opposition and as Prime Minister. Bertin is part of a group of senior women who have been appointed to ensure all policy developed by the Government considers the impact on women and strives to increase their role in politics, business and society as a whole.

Lady Bertin criticized the philosophy of "lean in" which urges women to be more proactive at seizing career opportunitinies. "‘Leaning in' is all very well if you are a highly-paid executive with wraparound childcare, but less so if you are a single parent or if both of you work very long hours and there is a hard stop for nursery pick-up," she said. "It also should not be a crime against your career to want to see your children awake during the week."

The peer also criticized programmes like Peppa Pig for reinforcing gender stereotypes that hold women back. "Deeply ingrained gender stereotypes starts early on," she said. ‘It can still subconsciously drive women and men down different paths."

Lady Bertin also addressed the challenges working fathers face and called for the "stamping out of a macho culture that sniggers behind its hand at shared parental leave or dads playing a bigger role."

The Government's new task force strives to ensure all policy developed by the Government considers the impact on women and tries to increase their role in politics, business and society. Made up of a committee of peers, MPs and policy experts, the group is chaired by Nikki Da Costa, the head of legislative affairs at N010.

Helen Rose, COO of TSB and one of the most senior women in the UK's retail banking sector, has tried for many years to get more senior women in business. As a result, she is encouraging other senior women in business to share their stories to encourage women to make it to the top.

Rose meets with groups of women from across the business to share tips to make it in the business world. "I tell them the story of when I was offered the COO job at TSB and was given 24 hours to make up my mind," she said. "You have to just say yes and think later about how to make it work. Often women don't get as far as saying yes, because they've already thought about what would be difficult. Women need to be bolder, because if you're not, you'll find that one of your peers - often of the male variety - beats you to the top."

Rose climbed to the top despite working in a male-dominated environment. She started her career as an accountant and then became an auditor. "I was told early on in my career that it was a good idea for women to move into tax, as it was less confrontational!" Despite the difficulties, Rose stood her ground. "That didn't resonate with me, as I believe women can be good at resolving confrontations."

She launched her career in senior finances roles in retail and worked in the industry over 15 years - at Dixons, Safeway and Forte. Although the retail industry usually attracts more women, at Forte, Rose was the only woman out of all the senior staff worldwide. "There was a lot of locker-room banter. In that situation, it's hard to bring your whole self to work."

Things changed when she joined what was there Lloyds TSB in 2005 where two of her three bosses were actually women. "Everyone was very generous and welcoming, but there was still a traditional, paternalistic culture," says Rose. "One of my direct reports said to me: ‘I haven't offered Jo the promotion because she's pregnant and I don't want to put more pressure on her.' And I said, ‘Well, isn't that Jo's choice?'"

A new opportunity opened up for Rose and her team to create the kind of company they wanted when TSB separated from Lloyds after the banking crisis. "Building a bank from scratch was incredibly complex, but it was great to write our own mission statement and think about what we wanted our values to be," she said.

"From the very beginning we built a much more gender-balanced team - 37% of our senior managers were women. Now we're up to 42% and we're aiming for 45-55%." Thanks to this change, Rose said "you're much more able to be relaxed, be yourself and bring all of your talents to work."

Rose criticised the tag of "superwoman" and said it's possible to reach the top without being one. "I personally don't like that tag, as it puts women off. We all face challenges; we just need to be more honest and open about how we ‘made it'."