Doing what comes naturally is good for business

Nicola Horlick didn’t start off a millionaire. She started at the bottom of the City game, pitching for business in shiny boardrooms under extreme pressure to powerful clients in expensive suits. Making her case, she was often the first woman that these men had ever seen in the fund management business. Many in her position would feel isolated, but according to Nicola, it gave her an advantage.

“I would be the only woman in the room and everyone said it made me memorable,” she says with a smile. “In business you are always trying to set yourself apart. I went on to become the youngest director ever, there was no discrimination there. It was helpful.”

There is little doubt that women bring something different to business. Across a wide variety of companies that used to be dominated by men, women are breaking through and making their mark. New research shows that they don’t just add to the general talent pool, they may also bring a special sparkle that can come with their gender. Whether it’s women like Nicola, who started Bramdean Asset Management, or Dame Mary Perkins starting Specsavers, Nicky Dulieu at Hobbs or Chrissie Rucker at the White Company, women are part of a brave new business world that increasingly demands the skills they are most likely to bring.

I used my natural attributes as a woman and I’d say I did better because of it

“It was very difficult when women first went into the City,” says Nicola. “They had to talk in deep voices, be mean and horrid, and wear shoulder pads to fit in. I never felt like that. I was always myself. I was a nurturer and a team player. I used my natural attributes as a woman and I’d say I did better because of it.”

In the past, any talk of a “female advantage” in business would have conjured up images of tight pin-striped jackets, bright red lipstick, batting eyelids and exposing legs to get a job done or a deal sealed. In fact, this approach was openly advocated in books like Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim. Now things have changed. Women have discovered that this approach pits them against their female colleagues, who may be considered less attractive, and ultimately undermines their respect and credibility in the workplace. Now female advantage means something quite different and has more to do with character than short skirts.

With 25 years’ experience as an executive in the ICT industry, Rowena Ironside knows all about this. Born into a family of three girls, her father decided to pass on his business experience to her, and Rowena went on to lead in some of the most male-dominated fields of business, starting off in a brewery in Australia, then working her way through engineering and information technology. After all her experience, she too felt that being a woman had its advantages in the workplace.

“There are just some things that women are better at,” she says. “Research shows that they are more democratic and participative, and less autocratic and directive… I’m 55 and this stuff certainly rings true with my personal experience. I’ve sat in boardrooms and women again and again are more likely to draw people in and solicit another opinion.”

Rowena went on to help lead Women on Boards, which aims to develop an “old-girls’ network” to support and encourage more women to go for top-level positions. Research by Cranfield Business School shows that women now make up 17 per cent of directors on the boards of FTSE-100 companies – a move in the right direction, but extra support is still needed.

The qualities associated with their gender help women with one incredibly powerful tool – the ability to form strong, trusting relationships in the workplace

“We believe we need a fundamental change in the organisational culture of our companies,” says Rowena. “Women should contribute equally in every field… I was in IT and engineering, and I could hold my own with every male geek. There is no reason why other women shouldn’t.”

Maxine Benson, co-founder of everywoman, also agrees that women offer something special. Having started her organisation 13 years ago, everywoman now has some 40,000 community members, offering women personal development and business-skills training, support and advice. After working with thousands of women, she believes the qualities associated with their gender help them with one incredibly powerful tool – the ability to form strong, trusting relationships in the workplace.

“Women are empathetic and look for areas to be of value to another person, not just always ‘what they can do for me’,” says Maxine. “Look at women outside work; they are so generous with guidance, offering advice on everything from kids to where to go for discounts. They are great sharers and communicators where men are more transactional… it is interesting that for years this wasn’t considered the wonderful asset that it is.”

In the past this approach might have been looked down upon. Businesses were hierarchical, formal organisations with a clear chain of command where everyone knew their place, where withholding information was a source of power. But in a world where those hierarchies are increasingly being broken down by new technologies, openness and the ability to form trusted relationships is a massive natural advantage. Sharing is the new hoarding and women are naturally suited to it. Networks are often what women do best.

Recent research by Sabina Nielsen at the Copenhagen Business School backs this up. A survey of 201 Norwegian firms found that women’s contributions to boards may well be attributable to their different leadership styles. Women’s presence seemed to increase the effectiveness of the boards, not least by “reducing the level of conflict” and ensuring space for proper development activities.

This has also been Nicola Horlick’s experience. Since her first day at school, she has worked in institutions dominated by the opposite sex. She was one of only a handful of girls in her prep school and was among the first intake of women at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1979. Refusing to break a habit of a lifetime, she took a job in the City and quickly rose to become director of Morgan Grenfell, where she grew total assets under management from £4 billion to £22 billion. Nicola says she was able to do that not by toning down her female qualities, but by using them.

“Women tend to create stronger teams and engender loyalty,” she says. “People work with me for a long time because they like me. I’m not just ordering them around. One reason there are so many men at the top is because they are willing to trample on anyone to get there. Women are more stable in a team.”

Another way women may improve business is through increased innovation. A pioneering example of this is Specsavers. Led by Dame Mary Perkins, the business experienced a massive increase in store numbers by offering better deals for female staff. Instead of offering straight franchises, she offered genuine partnerships that would give go-ahead women with childcare the flexibility to work and look after their families. That enabled the company to access a whole pool of talent that other companies had overlooked, giving them a real competitive edge.

“Because the pace of change is faster in business today, succeeding means you need more innovation,” says Rowena Ironside. “Diversity encourages that innovation you need to survive. The old hierarchies designed by men for men do not deliver that and they cannot deal with the pace of change.”

Of course, another reason why women may be good at businesses may simply be because they are better placed to know what other women want to buy. A classic example was Cupcake Mum, a private members club set up for women by Karen Hastings. With no experience of motherhood, male-dominated funders had never quite understood why this was such a great business idea, but Karen clocked it and it is now incredibly successful.

So if women really are such an advantage to business, why are they still so under-represented at the senior levels of the business world? As well as the constant issue of childcare and women being the ones expected to stay at home to look after the house, Maxine Benson thinks there are also more cultural reasons in business to take into account.

“This is about group-think,” she says. “Legacy-thinking means that most businesses are still dominated by a male culture and they cannot see why they should do things differently or how. Women faced with that environment can think it is not for them and walk out, even when their skills are exactly what might be needed.”