Women in Business – An Interview with NWBLT Member, Nicola Quayle

Continuing our series of interviews with women in business, this week we hear from Nicola Quayle, Manchester Office Senior Partner at KPMG. Nicola discusses the challenge facing women and the need for cross-sector mentors.

1. This year is significant for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, with the centenary of the representation of the people act that gave women – although with restrictions – the right to vote. In your opinion how important is it for us to mark this event?

It’s really important that we recognise and celebrate this anniversary. Celebrating 100 years of suffrage gives us pause for reflection  on the struggles and oppression that women had to endure for decades before earning the right to vote – oppression which should continue to inspire all women today.

 It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on how much progress has been made in the drive for gender equality over the course of the century, but it’s also a reminder of how much more there is to do – and it’s a powerful reminder that we have a responsibility to honor the legacy, work and sacrifice of all those powerful women who helped change our futures for the better by making sure we continue to aspire for gender equality in all its forms.

2. Beyond merely celebrating and reflecting on this, what tangible things do business leaders; policy makers and other influential people need to do to continue the further advancement towards equality?

Most simply, by walking the talk, and leading by example. A few years ago, KPMG joined forces with King’s College London to interview a group of big business CEOs to understand what they see as the hurdles preventing women from reaching senior management roles. The CEOs – predominantly men, unsurprisingly – gave an array of interesting opinions. But what came through loud and clear was the mea culpa: it’s our failure as leaders. The 15 male CEOs, plus five female CEOs, were brave enough to admit that they had not done enough to drive through change.

 Business leaders can take practical steps to ensure we advance – for example by tackling the comparably small number of women in senior leadership positions, by making sure quality learning, development, coaching and mentoring schemes are in place for all employees, by supporting those who return to work after periods of maternity or parental leave and by tackling unconscious bias

 What’s also important though is that, while the conversation around equality in the workplace continues, the tone of the conversation also changes. Interestingly, the King’s research identified the way in which CEOs communicate about diversity as one of the key challenges preventing progress. The report showed that men understand the commercial reasons for having a diverse boardroom – as well as the social-justice imperative of diversity and inclusion – and they can articulate the theory, but what they struggle with is the ability to articulate their personal reasons for driving change. What really makes a difference is leaders speaking from the heart.

 It’s also not just about striving for a 50:50 split in the workforce. Having open and honest conversations about issues such as the gender pay gap is also critically important. At KPMG, we issued our own gender pay gap reporting (and also ethnicity reporting) at the end of last year, alongside our annual financial results, and last week we hosted a live debate across a number of offices where staff could hear our leaders speak about the issue.  It’s critical that we have open and honest conversations about these issues – that we accept the issues are real and as business leaders we openly debate how we can address them. 

3. How important are, and what is the impact of role models on gender diversity?

I always say to our senior female leaders that whilst they might not have felt they needed role models, they have a responsibility to the next generation to be one. It’s a tough world at the moment, for men and women. Just doing business is harder than it used to be so I think for women, who may still have that slight disadvantage or are battling perception or unconscious bias, women in senior positions do have a responsibility to make sure they are both championing the cause, but also providing practical support. Women don’t need to be mentored by women but I think it is incumbent on senior women to go out of their way to make sure they’re mentoring talent and that they’re recognising where talent isn’t being given the opportunity.

4. In certain sectors, in the last 15 to maybe 30 years there has been more of an inclusion of women in senior roles, not as much as we’d expect or like there to be. But there are sectors that are still perceived as male dominated and where there might be a lack of senior women who can act as role models. How do we get women in junior roles in those sectors to see how far they can advance if there is no one to emulate?

That is hard, even within our business some of the different disciplines in our business have lower percentages [of female representation] than others so we still see that there are areas where we’ve got work to do.

I always encourage people to seek out mentors and coaches because I really do think it provides that practical support and guidance. Sometimes you just need someone to talk and to find the way through and you don’t need to be told the answer – quite often you know it. But, women do sometimes lack that self-confidence and just having somebody to talk to outside of their business can often help. It also doesn’t need to be within your business, in fact sometimes where you don’t have role models within your business you need to get that support from outside. And the men in your business need to recognise that they need to help you find that. Women can quite happily and easily be mentored by men, it doesn’t need to be a woman always mentoring a woman, but it sometimes helps because we do face different challenges both practically and emotionally.

5. The business benefits of a diverse work force have frequently been reported, how best do we educate businesses – large and small – that creating more inclusive workforces is not just “the right thing to do” but that there is a solid business case for doing so?

While its a couple of years old now, the most frequently cited study in this field is McKinsey’s ‘Why Diversity Matters’ report – it was this report that that put diversity firmly on the agenda in millions of boardrooms around the world. The key finding was that the most gender-diverse companies outperform their peers by 15%, and the most ethnically diverse companies outperform their peers by 35%. So the business case is absolutely there – diverse businesses perform better than those that, put simply, aren’t diverse.

At KPMG, we find that having a diverse workforce reduces ‘group think’, produces more-rounded decision-making and ultimately, helps to increase innovation. It also has a positive impact on relationships at all levels from colleagues, to clients to our communities.  We find that valuing inclusion and diversity is also attractive to new recruits, from entry level to experienced hires, who often say that one of the main reasons they chose to apply to KPMG is because it values its people. When people feel able to bring their whole selves to work without fear of prejudice, employees are also able to be their best selves both inside and outside of the workplace. 

But again, ultimately, the best way to educate other businesses around this is for business leaders to lead by example. For them to promote diversity and inclusion amongst their networks and peers, and for them to show their workforce that value for an inclusive workforce comes from the top down, is the most important thing they can do.

6. As a senior woman in professional services what advice would you give to more junior women who hope to have a successful career in the professional services sector?

That it can be done but that no one else will do it for you – you have to take responsibility for your own career. Seek out opportunities; they won’t always seek you out. Be brave and don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone – that’s often when I have learnedand developed most. It’s a generalisation – but one I really believe is true – that women lack confidence in their own ability compared to their male colleagues.  Both they and their leaders need to understand this to ensure their potential isn’t overlooked and is rewarded.  I see lots of women who rule themselves out of opportunities and don’t push themselves forward in the same way that their male colleagues do – which saddens me, as the opportunities and the potential are both there.  And finally find a sponsor, a mentor and if it helps more than one of each – again it’s a generalisation but I think women often like to think they can do it by themselves. In my experience accepting help and advice along the way has been invaluable.

7. What do you think are the biggest barriers for women entering and advancing in the workforce today, in your opinion; do you think these barriers differ from what you faced at the start of your career?

A lot has changed – mostly for the better – since I started my career. Not least that we have far more role models now, and whilst I hate the term when its applied to me, I do think this is important as having examples of senior women around can inspire those starting out as they are a clear signpost that it can be done.   I think perceptions have changed a lot as well – when I returned from my first period of maternity leave and was clear I wanted to continue with my career, it was quite unusual – and I had to overcome some perceptions that I couldn’t make it work.  I think this is much more accepted now, even if the practical issues remain. 

However at the same time, the increase in pace of business has made it harder for everyone – males and females alike – and we are facing more challenge from regulation, the need to continually innovate to just stay still and to cope with the increasing demands and expectations of our clients for a pace of response that are often hard to meet. Whilst this is true for everyone, with a lot of women juggling family commitments at the same time, I think this does make it tougher for women.

I think it’s also important that we acknowledge that it’s not easy to have a career and a family – for both men and women juggling both can be difficult and for me a strong support network has always been vital.  This can often mean women chose not to pursue a career – or take time out before they pick up their career again – and this decision is not always given the respect it deserves.  For me, the important thing is that we have a choice.

8. Some recent events such as the President’s Club dinner and the announcement of the BBC gender pay gap have come to light recently. What were you’re initial thoughts on these issues? Does it imply we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality?

I think the President’s Club was a shock. We don’t see that – I certainly don’t see that on a day-to-day basis – so I think it was quite a shock for everybody to realise that still happens, as inappropriate as it is. I don’t think the gender pay gap is a surprise, I think it shows we’ve made progress but we have a long way to go. I get quite frustrated about gender pay gap conversations because I think sometimes it’s not well understood and we default into a conversation about equal pay. The gender pay gap will take time and there is a lot of intervention you can do to help it, by giving women the opportunity to progress, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Am I surprised we’ve still got gender pay gaps? No. Am I still disappointed it’s still as wide as it is? Yes, but I’m fairly positive about the actions that people are taking to address it and I think having the debate is brilliant; having the need to report it is really prompting the conversation. It’s only really when you have these conversations that things change. So I really think it’s for the positive that it’s on the agenda.