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Women in Business: Q&A with Cosmic’s Joint CEO

2nd November 2017

Cosmic's Chief Executive Julie Hawker has recently been added to WISE100 (Women in Social Enterprise 100). The WISE100 recognises the inspiring and influential woman in all social enterprises, impact investments and social innovations. The goal is to help work towards gender equality within the workplace, encouraging and supporting more women to achieve their goals. This list is a great opportunity to celebrate woman from across the social enterprise and private sectors considering gender inequality in the workplace.

Cosmic’s newest apprentice, Gemma Spencer, has asked Julie about her own personal experiences of becoming a leading woman in business, and her current thoughts about gender equality in the workplace.

1. What do you think are biggest obstacles of gender diversity in the workplace?

The biggest obstacle (still!) is one of attitudes and the ongoing challenges which ‘old-school’ assumptions and expectations set in our workplaces. We (men and women) must continue to commit to challenging poor attitudes, assumptions and expectations in all of our workplaces, by making sure that the understanding of everyone’s value, skills, knowledge and experiences are the culture embedded in every business.

2. What do you think of gender diversity in Social Enterprises currently?

Social enterprises are truly flying the flag for gender diversity with many more having a balanced workforce, but also with a much higher proportion (compared to traditional private sector business) having senior leaders and directors who are women. 41% of social enterprises are led by women in 2017, and at Cosmic we have 2! With this figure in mind, women could easily be in the majority within the next few years. It’s time to push on ladies; that will surely be worth celebrating.

3. What does it mean to you to be a woman in your position?

On many levels, I think it’s absolutely no different being a female leader in business than it is being a man. The challenges of developing and running businesses are many and substantial, so we all need plenty of energy, commitment and perseverance of course. But in addition, (and in my experience) being a woman in leadership in business also requires a level of understanding of how to best influence and achieve success in ways that perhaps men have failed or have prevented progress. Emotional intelligence, compassion and empathy all matter when it comes to dealing with people, teams and relationships – and women should lean on their natural abilities here. But at no time should that diminish our abilities and skills to be hard-nosed, decision-making, strategic and ambitious leaders too!  There’s no need for compromise between these; just a good deal of brainpower.

4. What has been the most difficult thing for you to overcome being a woman in Business?

I’m a very passionate, impulsive, and reactive person generally, and its in my nature to leap into a debate or discussion based on my ‘gut’ instinct. It has served me very well, I have to say! Trying to temper and pace my responses to situations has been a major learning curve, and I have to say I’ve learned that from some of the best leaders around me (men and women). I sometimes think that women can do themselves (and their reputation) more harm-than-good by diving in too soon and too deep to debates and emotion-drive communications, when often it really is better to wait and offer up considered, wise and experience-led response. Always easier said than done but something I continually strive to achieve, particularly in the leadership role, as it's vital that others can respond to that lead and be prepared to follow.

5. Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

I would certainly have offered up more of my time to support other women in leadership positions and in social enterprise. This is something which I am determined to achieve in the years ahead. Men have age-old networks of support around them in developing their careers and businesses – and we are still catching up on that front. There need to be more networks, mentoring support and celebrations of women in business and leadership. At a recent celebration of women in business, I really loved a comment from the stage which was, that “it is the job of every woman leading in business to support other women leading in business right now”. “We should be polishing each other’s crowns”.

6. What advice would you give to other women looking to succeed in business?

Believe in yourself and understand that whilst you may set out to be superhuman you do have limits, needs and a body to look after too! Build lots of trust relationships with others (particularly other women in similar positions) who can support you – both in your business and outside it too. Find yourself a great mentor (or two) and make sure you find time to reflect and learn as you go. It helps to share and ‘offload’ the pressure along the way. Don’t let the set-backs put you off your stride too much; they are bound to happen, and as long as you learn from them and move on it will be OK. Persevere, but be smart – don’t bang your head on the same wall too many times. Just reflect, learn, switch the plan if needed, and move on. And have fun! It’s a big job, with lots of demands and energy required and so if you don’t deliberately make it enjoyable then it’s really going to be tough.

7. When faced with problems in the workplace, is there any advice you would give on how to overcome them?

Deal with them – don’t try and avoid them or put them off for another day (they may just get worse). Always take time to listen to your colleagues when there are problems – really take on board the underlying issues, attitudes and challenges. Don’t just pay ‘lip service’ to anything which feels important, it will only come back to haunt you later. Always get other people involved in finding solutions too, don’t lose the opportunity to give others the experience of resolving challenges as it’s a great way to develop your people.

8. Over the course of your career so far, have you noticed any changes for women in business?

There are many ways in which things have improved since I started my career in the 80s. Workplaces are far more inclusive in most industries now, and skills providers have worked very hard to ensure gender balance in many of the technical skills areas. But there’s still a hill to climb here as we need the number of women in digital roles to rapidly increase in the next few years (currently around 17%). A major improvement has been the number of women in leadership positions who can act as role models and offer inspiration to others, including me. I’ve been able to draw on the experiences and learning from women in businesses in the UK and around the world as I’ve developed and this is something I hope to contribute to in the years ahead too. It’s my experience that men are getting much better (albeit slowly in some cases) at adapting to working alongside women in leadership roles effectively. I’ve enjoyed some of the best working relationships in recent years with men who’ve let their guard down at last and trusted my knowledge and skills enough to value my role. May that continue to improve, for me and other women. I think that most of all, we all need to renew our commitment to bringing full equality into our businesses, workplaces and organisations, so that real talent, male and female can flourish and add value to our work.