Business Women's Day: Chamber leaders share their stories

Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

Today - Thursday 22 September, 2022 - marks Business Women’s Day, which celebrates the contribution that women make in the business world.

To mark Business Women’s Day, we interviewed a number of the West Midlands’ leading business women, who are part of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. Our chief executive Henrietta Brealey, president Deb Leary and Asian Business Chamber of Commerce director Anjum Khan discussed the responsibility of being a woman in business – as well as sharing tips and experiences from their respective careers to the future women leader.

What does being a woman in business mean to you?

Deb: Honestly, I don’t think about it until someone mentions it. If anything, being a woman in the industry I am in is a benefit. Starting and leading a forensic/intelligence company there aren’t many women in that position and so you stand out. It’s all about owning your space.

Henrietta: For me it’s a mix of pride and a bit of a sense of responsibility. My granny is 100 years old. She was in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce during World War II and in many ways a bit of a powerhouse. She’s also someone whose life was undeniably shaped by the much more limited opportunities available for, and expectations of, women during her youth. I have no doubt she would have taken a very different path if she was born today and had the opportunities I’ve had. So, I am proud at how far we’ve come as a society and that this has allowed my path as a woman in business to be so much smoother than hers. I also have that sense of responsibility that now I’m here I need to make sure I keep smoothing that path for others too.

Anjum: I think being a woman in business means that not only do you do the job but also embrace the role of a leader. It’s about being authentic to yourself. It’s having the courage to own who you are. Chynna Morgan use to say “Being a successful woman in business means that I get to open doors for other women by being an example” and I think this quote is really accurate for me.

What biases and hurdles (if any) have you encountered throughout your career and how have you overcome these?

Henrietta: I have been very fortunate to have been well supported by my colleagues during my career. Even so, I was 25 when I was appointed director of policy at the Chamber and I started attending senior level stakeholder events and I probably looked about 15.

While I have no doubt it was entirely unconscious for others, for me I was highly conscious of needing to work twice as hard to be listened to or taken seriously – even on occasions when I was probably one of the more informed in the room on the topic in question. Doubly conscious that in many spaces, women of any age were in the minority.

Luckily, I’m very stubborn and had a boss who believed in and supported me (thanks Paul!) so I pushed on anyway. But I do wonder how much raw talent and how many great ideas we lose as a society when we don’t have inclusion in mind.

Deb: There have been occasions in meetings where conversations have been directed to a male colleague. 

I use opportunities like that to re-educate. I don’t get angry or frustrated. The worst incident was when I was challenged by a bank as to how an SME like mine could possibly develop the technologies we do – “you’ve never built technologies like this before”.

My response was “darling, everything I’ve ever done in the past 20 years I’ve never done before – it’s called innovation”.

What would you say is the biggest barrier to women in business today?

Henrietta: Childcare in the UK is very expensive compared to average incomes and society still expects and places (intentionally or not) pressure on women to be the primary caregiver for children – something I’ve seen have a detrimental impact on men as well as women.

There can also be assumptions and biases about what mums will and won’t want to do in the workplace in terms of taking on challenging projects and progression.

Lots of conversations about women in the workplace centre on “the leaky pipeline” and how women leave the workforce or stop progressing form c.late 20s-40s. I wonder what could possibly be happening with large volumes of women around that age?

A good thing that has come from the post-pandemic “battle for talent” is the number of organisations considering part-time or flexible working options that can work better for those with caring responsibilities of all kinds and give businesses access to some of the huge wealth of talent among those individuals of any gender. 

Deb: The word “barrier”. We mustn’t use negative language against ourselves. Let’s use the word “challenges”. Unless we take up space, the space will be taken up by others. 

We have to be present. We have to step up and out and we have to call out and highlight where things need to change. We have to own the room and no one can do that for us, we have to do it. It is an education piece.

What advice would you give to your younger self and to the future generation of female leaders about navigating and succeeding in the world of business?

Henrietta: Be heard. My wonderful first manager at the Chamber, Katie Teasdale, gave me some good advice many years ago when I was nervous about starting to attend external meetings – to paraphrase: “just try to say something.

Even if it’s only a small comment or agreeing with something someone else has said, push yourself to say something and your confidence will build from there”.

It’s pretty good advice in any setting – sometimes it feels awkward and sometimes it doesn’t feel like others round the table necessarily want to hear you or expect you to say anything – but pushing through and being heard is often the first step to having your potential recognised. I’d also say – go for it!

Almost every job I’ve applied for I’ve told myself that I’m probably not ready yet and there will be someone out there who’s better than me – but I’ve got nothing to lose by trying so why not give it a punt. It turns out, I have been the best candidate on more than one occasion. It’s not your job to tell yourself that you’re not ready.

Deb: You have value. You have a voice. It is up to you to step into the limelight. You don’t need to know everything. No one knows everything.

Be authentic. Saying what you want or need isn’t selfish, it isn’t rude. The important thing is to put it into context and ensure that you are inclusive, remember everyone has their challenges. 

Don’t win at the expense of others. Win with others.

Anjum: Advice to my younger self would be that, in trying to be accepted, I at times held the real ‘me’ back.

My advice to the future generation of female leaders are cultural rules and values can shape the dynamics of stigma. Don’t let this rule your life or career path as you can’t please them all. As women we are more self-aware and more empathetic. We accept things that we don’t want to or have too. It’s not ok to not be included and you can call this out in a professional manner.

Another piece of advice from me is don’t be too critical of yourself. You won’t know it all and it’s ok to get things wrong – but make sure when making decisions, it is YOUR decision.

And take care of people – in our aim to achieve we forget this and just concentrate on the goal.

Pictured: Anjum Khan, Henrietta Brealey and Deb Leary