An Interview with Alastair Blair Womens Day, Women Leaders, Women in Business...
With International Women’s Day being today, who better to discuss the place of women in recruitment (and work in general) than Jayne Halperin, Senior Director at Cedar…?
How difficult was it for you, as a woman, to advance in your career in recruitment?
“About 20 years ago, when I started out as a recruiter at the sharp end of the business, not only did I report almost exclusively to men but the vast majority of the clients were also male. Moreover, there is no doubt that because I didn’t watch/play golf/football I was excluded from a lot of conversations.”
“As my career has developed, I have come to the conclusion that quite a lot of recruitment firms are still somewhat old-fashioned. We still expect ‘certain standards’ of dress and decorum. Of course, because I’ve worked largely in finance/accountancy recruitment, which is quite conservative, that may be unsurprising, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change. Certainly, while in some of the places I’ve worked I have been the most senior woman, I reckon that only about 20% of recruitment firms’ directors are female. However, at that sharp end where I began my career, there are quite a lot of younger women working as recruitment consultants. As their careers develop, they come across the same challenges I have had. The big problem is that if you are a biller in a recruitment agency it’s difficult to work part-time or from home.”
“Obviously, another key ‘problem’ area is that women have children. I have had three and while I don’t know if I would be more (or less!) successful if I hadn’t, one thing I have observed in a number of companies is that although senior management say they are OK with mothers leaving early for the school run, etc. in fact often they are not. There is a veneer of enthusiasm about flexible and part-time working, but the reality can, sadly, be different. The arched eyebrow and the sideways glance are not uncommon from those raised on the belief that an individual’s presence in the office means they are working!”
“This is one of the reasons I’m at Cedar. We are, in my opinion, very lucky here. I work one day a week from home, yet no-one is bothered so long as I do the work expected of me. And there are no raised eyebrows when I leave early to get kids. However, that’s because it’s obvious that I work the same hours as everyone else (sometimes more!) regardless of whether I’m in the office or not: as any working mum will tell you, feeding/washing/helping kids while answering emails never stops. It’s the trust here that makes me loyal. We have another two female directors and other women who are heads of business areas and this, in turn, helps attract other good women. I know this may sound like ‘well she would say that, wouldn’t she?’, but there really is a healthy attitude to flexible working in this business.”
“I think it’s now accepted - largely because the proof of the pudding has been in the eating – that having a mix of sexes helps decision making and the overall running of a business. Not only that, but there is a lot of research which shows that the benefits – more balance, healthier conversations, etc. lead to increased profits.”
How much of a change have you seen in the way clients still think in gender stereotypes when it comes to different jobs/levels?
“Legally, you can’t say anything on race, age, etc. but in the past, a lot of clients thought in gender stereotypes – a man for an MD, a woman for a secretary. Today, some clients actively want to recruit more women, a lot don’t care either way and a small minority still say, ‘don’t quote me on this, but for this job we really need a ….’ That’s rare though and people are so aware that they can’t discriminate that I feel it’s a diminishing problem. Finance and accountancy people in particular are far more focused on the quality of the candidate and not really bothered what sex they are. Perhaps the one area where there is still discrimination though is around age: many companies are adamant they want ‘young, dynamic people.”
Who is your female hero (or should we say heroine)?
“You might expect me to say some sassy, successful businesswoman, but instead I think this is easy – for me it’s Marie Curie, the first woman to get a Nobel prize (and in fact she got two), and also because of the amazing charity that takes her name.”
And finally, if you had the power to make one thing mandatory for a “better balanced world” (the theme for International Women’s Day), what would it be?
“I realise this is a sort-of ‘what is utopia?’ question, but in an ideal world you wouldn’t be seen as a man or a woman, you’d just be seen as a person and we’d all be 100% equal. Benefits and opportunities would be the same for both sexes and no-one would be remotely surprised to see a man bringing up his family’s children. A lot of this would be achieved by genuinely flexible working. In other countries, men and women are enthusiastic about sharing maternity leave and we should do this far more often in the UK. At present, I believe the take-up is around 2%. As I said earlier, it’s a trust thing – you don’t have be in the office to work efficiently and effectively. Over my career to-date I’ve seen a lot of change for the better and I think things will keep improving for women – and men – in the future as the benefits that come with real gender equality become more apparent.”