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International Women's Day 2019

For R3’s London breakfast event to mark International Women’s Day 2019, in partnership with IWIRC London, we once again convened on the 7th floor of Grant Thornton’s office in Finsbury Square. The elevated setting was a good fit for the themes explored by the panellists, including the loneliness faced by leaders, the importance of taking a longer view, and how to rise above workaday setbacks. In a packed room, speakers extolled the importance of building networks, of standing up for other women, and of how to change workplace culture to make it more accommodating to diverse employees.

IWD panel, l-r: Jo Hewitt; Christine Ohuruogu; Liz Bingham; Emma Lovell; Kris Kicks

Kris Kicks of Grant Thornton, and Chair of R3’s London & South East Women’s Group, gave a brief introduction touching on the history of IWD, celebrated on March 8th since 1913, and noting that it is a day for “unity, celebration, advocacy, and action”.

R3’s CEO, Emma Lovell, gave the audience a bit of background about R3’s efforts to boost diversity and promote women in the profession, such as the Women’s Groups around the UK, the R3 Ladies’ Lunch returning to its original intention of highlighting the achievements of women within the profession, and the 2014 report on women in insolvency and promoting the profession as a career of choice. Emma observed, however, that not enough of the report’s recommendations had been fully implemented across the profession, and its conclusions remained as pressing and as valid as they were five years ago.

Emma talked openly and honestly about how she had faced imposter syndrome and the loneliness that “comes with the territory” of leading an organisation. She noted the importance of mentors, advocates and support networks, developing new skillsets and pushing outside the comfort zone. Emma discussed how she keeps herself going by her enjoyment of the job and her attachment to the insolvency and restructuring profession; and her sense of responsibility to R3’s staff and its members. Speaking about the internal struggles faced by leaders is still a bit of a “taboo”, she said, but one she hoped to challenge. Emma advised the audience to find out their personality type and preferred working style to maximise their working time, especially whether they were more introverted (requiring quiet time to reflect on and absorb work events) or extroverted (gaining energy from meeting other people).

Liz Bingham OBE, a partner at EY, now retired, was the R3 President (2013-14) when the diversity and inclusion report mentioned by Emma was published; she talked about how she was always pleased to be at events to boost and celebrate women, but also spoke of her frustration that sometimes it all felt a bit “Groundhog Day”, with the same issues recurring and not being fully addressed.

The World Economic Forum recently published a report showing that pay parity between the genders is getting further away: in 2017, it estimated that full parity was 100 years away; in 2018, that had crept up to 108 years. A World Bank report from early March – Women, Business, and the Law – said that only six countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden) achieved 100% when it came to laws encouraging women into the workplace, and supporting and retaining them once they were in work. The UK was not in this select group, but was in the second tier, achieving a 97.5% score, Liz noted.

Liz talked about how the drive towards diversity and inclusion is vital, but also faces barriers to full implementation. Diverse teams have better problem solving abilities, as proved by “countless papers” showing “tangible evidence” of improvements to the bottom line from more inclusive workplaces. So why is it so tricky in practice, she asked; one part of the answer is the phenomenon of “homophily”, or “like calls to like” – that is, it only takes “three or four points of connection before you see someone as being in your tribe”. For example: A white man interviewing another white man, who discovers in casual conversation that they are both rugby fans, has immediately found three points of connection, making the decision to appoint psychologically simpler. This also helps explain why women and/or marginalised people are often less likely to be put forward for career-enhancing projects and opportunities, sometimes through assumptions about their willingness to put aside caring commitments to relocate or to work long hours, for example, and sometimes because of the underlying tendency for leaders to boost the careers of people who “look like them”. Careful analysis of data, and environments where all team members feel empowered, listened to, and valued, are key to fostering true inclusivity – “it’s achievable if we are mindful.”

Liz’s advice to attendees was to ask for help, from teams, to colleagues, to bosses; and to prepare for meetings in order to have most impact, and also to realise that the ‘meeting’ itself begins before its set time, and concludes long after its official end. Finally, she mentioned the tricky subject of microaggressions, and how to handle “bad behaviour”, recommending reaching out for help, and bringing up the topic in private, emphasising how a careless remark or action made the recipient feel. Everyone can play a part in calling out “isms”, she pointed out.

Christine Ohuruogu MBE, an Olympic, world, and Commonwealth 400m champion, now a law student, shared five key lessons from the world of top-level athletics which carry over to the workplace, in an engaging and insightful talk.

First of all, embrace the unknown: Christine shared how, having been a top-flight under-19 netball player, she made the switch to the totally new (to her) area of athletics. It was “the hardest decision”, and a risk, but it was a mindset that served her well in Olympic finals – of “stepping out of my comfort zone and really going for it”.

Next, remember that experience cannot be rushed: Christine related that, while it seems simple, the 400m actually has many different nuances which take time (and failure) to learn; it took her 10 years to break the British 400m record. “Timing is everything – all we can do is the work.”

Another vital lesson was that consistency is key. Breaking down the 400m into two legs of 200m, Christine explained how it was much better to have relatively consistent splits in the first and second halves of the race. This is why it sometimes seemed like she was “asleep” until nearly the end of the race, she said – her consistency and understanding of pacing allowed her to honour her own way of working, rather than chasing competitors who “went off too hard” in the early stages of the race.

Relatedly, she emphasised the necessity of delivering when it matters: everyone has different goals, and being true to your own rhythm is key.

Christine’s final and “most important” lesson was that you have to have healthy respect and love for the self. As an athlete, it was easy to “honour” her body, as it was central to her work, and she also learned how time for self-awareness and self-reflection helped her to deliver on the track – “a happy athlete is a performing athlete”. Now, studying law, she finds that life is very different, and finding time to look after her wellbeing is a priority: “When you have love for the self, that is where stability comes from.”

Wrapping up the event, Jo Hewitt of EY posed the audience several provocative questions: How do we disrupt what is currently happening with diversity and inclusion? How do we make people feel that their differences are truly valued? Do women still need to copy the style of their male colleagues in order to succeed, and is doing so really helping to change the workplace? She pointed out that, with the rise of AI and robotics, so-called “soft” skills (or, as Jo prefers to call them, “essential” skills) will be more vital than ever.

In all, it was a really positive and thought-provoking morning, with many great lessons on topics from leadership, to fostering a truly inclusive workplace, to learning how to understand your own unique rhythm, to the importance of platforms and cooperation. Let’s hope that on IWD 2020 there is more progress to report.

Notes to editors:

  • R3 is the trade body for Insolvency Professionals and represents the UK’s Insolvency Practitioners.

  • R3 comments on a wide variety of personal and corporate insolvency issues. Contact the press office, or see for further information.

  • R3 promotes best practice for professionals working with financially troubled individuals and businesses; all R3 members are regulated by recognised professional bodies
  • R3 stands for 'Rescue, Recovery, and Renewal' and is also known as the Association of Business Recovery Professionals.