CMI Women: Reflecting on how far we’ve come

Tuesday 01 December 2020
Last week we celebrated 50 years of CMI Women – here are the top-level takeaways from our fantastic guests

2020 is going to down in history for one reason and one reason only – but all the emphasis on Covid-19 means we are at risk of missing many other momentous, lasting and positive changes in society, which is why the CMI’s celebration of 50 years of its Women network was titled: “Being Bold for a Better Future”.

Convened virtually by CMI Chief Executive, Ann Francke OBE, many original thoughts were voiced as well as a plethora of advice for young women starting out today hoping to make it in the management industry.


But first it’s important to note the corporate case for why women should be included. “The simple truth is that if a business wants to succeed, gender equality is not an issue it can afford to ignore,” said Alison Rose, the CEO of NatWest CEO. “All the research tells us that there is a direct relationship between a diverse leadership team and improved business performance… inclusivity is critical. Diversity of thought and removing the homogenous group think that is the enemy of innovation and intelligent risk management is vital if we are to remain competitive.”

Rose pointed to research conducted by McKinsey that shows companies in the top quartile for diversity are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. “Whether it’s making sure women have the same opportunities as men to develop their career or making sure men have the same access to family friendly policies and flexible working - change is happening,” Rose explained.

Gender equality is vital for both sexes, Ann Francke agreed, summing up the issue succinctly with the words: “Two sides of the same coin: men at home and women at work.”

This insight struck a chord with Angela Owen – founder of Women in Defence UK – who took up the theme: “I feel like a lot of women look into the corporate world which, in my sector, is still largely run by men, and perhaps don’t like what they see, and I think men don’t like their corporate world either so let’s sort out family friendly policies.” Owen also pointed out how far we have come – in addition to how far we have to go – revealing that she had to leave her career in the army when she became pregnant thirty years ago because those were the rules. “It was so unfair,” she concluded, “but it spurred me on to do what I do now.”


Nowadays, perhaps the biggest challenge for women is overcoming barriers within ourselves, argued Dr. Heather Melville, CMI Women’s Chair: “It took people – sponsors – to see the good in me and tell me I could do this. That’s why I make the time to mentor young women – because they need to see role models, understand the journey that we’ve been on, and understand that they can get there if they want to as well.”

Women in the corporate world are still a minority, explained Jo Moffatt, Deputy Chair, CMI Women, and considered different as a result. But that’s no bad thing: “From an engineering perspective, in the STEM sector, the key point around being in a male-dominated industry is understanding the strength in being different; rather than seeing it as a hindrance, see it as a strength.”

For any woman contemplating the current working world and only seeing a third of women in top leadership positions the key message from Angela Owen is to go for it. Challenge yourself, ultimately: “Be brave. Anyone can be courageous for 30 seconds and that’s all most things take.”


Going hand-in-hand with sponsorship is the idea of male allyship – this is important as, in order for women to reach the top echelons of an organisation, more often than not they need the support of men as well as women to get there. Allyship is a powerful way of helping women get a seat at the table.

This is something the two speakers in particular were familiar with. Paul Polman, co-founder and chair of Imagine was previously CEO of Unilever from 2009-2019, was one of the first CEOs to champion gender balance in the workplace. “During my time, we made significant strides towards a balanced and inclusive organisation – the proportion of women in management rose from around 37% to 50% globally,” he says. When discussing male allyship in the workplace, Paul says: “My first challenge to men is: get involved! Get involved for the right reasons, and help others to understand those reasons. Secondly, all male managers should be dedicating time to mentoring women. I also challenge men to show their commitment by developing sponsoring shortlists that should be diverse and gender balanced. There are many ways men can become better allies; we should be role models for flexible working and inclusive work practices while challenging work practices that do not foster an inclusive culture.”

CMI’s president, Lord Mark Price CMgr CCMI, agrees with Paul. “I’ve always thought about allyship as a process of how you think, the words you use, and the actions you take.” He goes on to say that the intellectual arguments and business cases for not just gender equality for equality and inclusivity across the board should be fully grasped by individuals in order to make the most impact.

“You’ve almost got to have a moralistic view: you must believe it’s right. Once you’ve accepted that, it’s about calling it out on every occasion. Demonstrate through your promotions and appointments that what you value most is talent and ability, irrespective of gender, colour of skin, or sexual orientation. If leaders do that, then we will change things.”

You can watch the highlights in this video. Have your own story to share? Get in touch with us today!

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