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'Those unconscious biases run deep': business women still face obstacles at the top

Lloyds Banking Group

7 min read Partner content

In the run-up to International Women’s day, Lloyds Banking Group, in partnership with The House, hosted a roundtable discussion and drinks reception on the topic of diversity in business. Parliamentarians, industry experts, social entrepreneurs and small business leaders came together to discuss the barriers women face in business and what needs to change to achieve equality of opportunity. Geoffrey Lyons reports

To get a taste of the sort of prejudices women face in business, just ask Abigail Hay. After working nine years for various local authorities, she left her job to support her husband’s budding used car business. Coming in with little knowledge of either cars or business, Hay worked evenings, weekends, and bank holidays to get the company off the ground. “We hear people talk about business as a lifestyle, but this was our life,” she says. Against all odds, and with a combination of sheer graft and perseverance, Hay and her husband made a success of it, and now Motonet, based in Coventry, is widely recognised as one of the best independent used car dealers in the UK.
But when Hay attends industry events - conferences, awards ceremonies, drinks receptions - it’s not uncommon for her mostly male counterparts to greet her with something like “so you do the books, do you?” However hard she has worked, Hay still doesn’t look like the director of a used car garage.

Hay’s story is one of many shared at a recent parliamentary roundtable on diversity in business hosted by Lloyds Banking Group in partnership with The House. The discussion, which took place in the run-up to International Women’s Day, focussed on the obstacles faced by women in business and how they can be overcome.

“I think we all know the stats,” says Jo Harris, Lloyds Banking Group Ambassador for the Midlands. “If you look at the biggest businesses in the UK, only 27% of positions are held at the top by females. There are more people named David or Steve in senior positions than there are women or ethnic minorities,” she says.

Something that all women face, to one degree or another, is what’s commonly called unconscious bias, or the inadvertent stereotyping of one group (in this case, women) by another. It can be far less overt than what Hay encounters at industry dinners, but no less pernicious. Rachel Roger, Director of Reform Radio, says that while she has never faced direct discrimination, she always feels hat she has to prove her worth. “There are a lot of conversations that happen that you’re not invited to” she says. “You have to fight your way into the room.”

And “the room,” says comedian and columnist Ayesha Hazarika, who chaired the discussion, “is where all the action happens.” Hazarika, who prior to becoming a comedian had a long career in politics, says that in her years as a special advisor to senior Labour politicians, she had to “claw” her way into the room.

“I worked really hard to get in the room and I just found that it was all boys and they’d all gone to the same schools and universities and they had all studied the same subject,” she says. “In politics, it was always assumed that men did the strategy and the big boy stuff, and women did the tea, coffee, and sandwiches. Those unconscious biases run deep.”

In fact, according to a recent global survey by Unilever Foundry, getting into the room isn’t even the hard part. 83% of female entrepreneurs surveyed said they experience marginalisation once they’re in a meeting. That’s compared to only 1% of men who feel that their gender has hindered their success.

Alison Cork, champion of female entrepreneurs and founder of Make it Your Business, points out that marginalisation in meetings can have devastating consequences. “It can come down to who gets money and who doesn’t,” she says.

“I think I’m right in saying that only two percent of venture capitalists are women, and only four percent of venture capital goes to female-led businesses” she says. “So when you’re sitting in front of a VC panel and pitching, you’re at a distinct disadvantage before anything else happens.”

While the car industry and venture capital have a ways to go, other sectors offer hope. Philippa Frankl, director of programs and learning for the School for Social Entrepreneurs, which Lloyds supports by providing £1 million in funding a year, says the social enterprise sector is experiencing a gender balance in the other direction.

“67% of our startup-level students are female leaders in their organizations,” she says. “We can begin to speculate why that is, but personally I think women see barriers in a more traditional model of business, and perhaps see an opportunity in social enterprise that chimes more with what they want to do and see in the world.”

But even in sectors that women find easier to break into, there’s always the question of whether their prospects could be damaged by taking parental leave. At the roundtable alone, one participant had just had a baby and another was eight month’s pregnant. A third, Hannah Williams, CFO of Tiny Rebel Brewery, another beneficiary of Lloyds funding, admitted that she returned to work just three days after giving birth to her third child. “I was back on site with a hard hat, shouting at people,” she says. For entrepreneurs and small business owners, there’s a fear that any time off could have negative long-term consequences.

And for those want to be business owners? Sonja Wittenberg, managing director of Well Grounded, the UK’s first specialty coffee training academy, says a beneficiary of one of the academy’s training programmes went on a successful placement and wants to start her own coffee shop, but can’t because savings from her current job won’t cover the costs of both childcare and starting a business. “Things are incredibly prohibitive for young mothers and mothers in general,” she says, adding that even networking can be challenging because it tends to take place in the evening with drinks. “That’s very difficult for mothers.”

Hazarika agrees, adding that it’s important support be given not just to women starting out, but also to those coming back from a hiatus. “People may not be economically active for a long time for whatever reason, whether it’s kids or something else, so they don’t have the confidence in how to get back into the workplace.”



“We need to look at the gender agenda with fresh eyes. Not just the culture, but the business opportunities as well” Tracy Lynn Brabin MP, Shadow Minister for Early Years

“We’re looking at bringing social enterprise through all different communities. The whole of the UK will benefit by having social enterprise as part of the mix. That’s where government needs to ensure we don’t miss anyone out.” Mims Davies MP, Minister for Sport and Civil Society

“I’ve sat in this dining room twice in the past five days and there’s been a completely different balance of gender. Last time it was all men and one woman. I mean, come on. It’s something we need to address at all levels of industry - in business, academia, everywhere.” Eddie Hughes MP

“People often say ‘well we can’t find these businesswomen. Where are we meant to find them? Nobody ever puts themselves forward.’ To which my answer is, ‘we are half the sodding population, go outside and swing a cat!’”Jess Phillips MP

“There are so many resources for women entrepreneurs that nobody knows about. There’s a lack of awareness of these resources, and too many voices trying to solve the same problem. I find this true of government full stop: too many voices trying to solve the same problem, and not. Phenomenally not.” Gillian Keegan MP

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