By Laura Tenison Wednesday, 16 February 2011

MT Special: Why we need more female mentors and role models

JoJo Maman Bebe's Laura Tenison argues that providing greater support for female entrepreneurs is a good way to reinvigorate the UK economy.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. Yet Cranfield University reported that one in four of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies had no women on their board of directors, and only five had female CEOs. The European Commission has just launched a new five-year strategy for gender equality based around five key priorities: getting more women into the job market; equality in senior positions; promoting female entrepreneurship; equal pay (women earn around 18% less than men across the EU on average); and tackling gender-based violence.

At the same time, female entrepreneurs are consistently making their mark within the business world. But what makes a great female entrepreneur? How is she different from her male counterparts? Why aren't there more female business leaders? And what can we do to change things?

We discussed all these topics recently at a roundtable in London hosted by Veuve Clicquot, which included a number of leading business men and women. The champagne label is well positioned to discuss women in business: it has been celebrating female entrepreneurship for the last 38 years through its annual Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year award, which I was honoured to win last year.

Established in 1972, the accolade was set up to commemorate Madame Clicquot, aka Nicole Ponsardin. Even though she lived in the early 1800s, Ponsardin embodied many of the entrepreneurial qualities that we see in successful individuals today. She was a trailblazer: she took over the stewardship of her husband’s vineyards aged just 27, and by the time of her death, had created an internationally known and respected brand. Each year the award sets out to tell the story of women who have made their name in business, with the hope of role modelling, encouraging and motivating others into setting up alone or growing their businesses.

As we enter a new year, and the Government cuts begin in earnest, we are left in little doubt that job creation will be down to the private sector. According to research by Russell Reynolds, the executive search company, female progress is likely to be hampered by a risk-averse culture during the recession. However, other reports have shown that companies with more women on their senior team show superior growth in equity, operational results and share price. So could better support and mentoring for female business women and entrepreneurs help reinvigorate the UK’s economy? Those of us present certainly thought so.

One of the most significant findings of the session related to the natural qualities that may define a business man or woman. It is becoming common, particularly in politics, for male politicians to display the characteristics more traditionally associated with women. Self-deprecation and family values were intentionally promoted heavily throughout Barack Obama and David Cameron’s election campaigns, allowing the average voter to relate more to their leaders and feel represented in some way.  Whilst Gordon Brown seemed ‘stuffy’ and cold, Cameron was a charming family man, at ease with the public.

This technique of adopting opposite gender characteristics can be applied in the workplace too. Men tend to be better at networking and more proactive in the use of publicity/self-promotion, not to mention more competitive by nature. This is not to say women need to become more masculine in their approach to business, but rather take stand-out qualities from men and use them to their advantage. Today’s women still need to utilise their natural abilities of multi-tasking and communication, as well as their nurturing approach to business and staff.

Women are natural fixers and cultivators, and it is these elements that should be employed in business. This has certainly been my approach to JoJo Maman Bébé: treating my business as a child. I gave birth to it, developed it and invested in it for the long term – something that I believe is a key differentiator for female entrepreneurs today.

Unfortunately a key component of female talent drop-out is a lack of female role models in business. This was supported by the McKinsey study "Women Matter" (2008): the research team found that 64% of women in the US see the absence of female role models as a barrier to their career development. This is also something the UK Government is pondering, with former business minister Lord Davies investigating male dominance of the corporate world. His report is due out later this month, but he has already signalled the possible creation of an academy to train and mentor female executives, as well as the creation of a group of 35 to 40 executives to help women gain the skills needed to hold boardroom posts.

Lord Davies’ report will be greatly anticipated, and I truly hope that 2011 will bring positive change for female entrepreneurs. Exam results in schools and universities across the UK demonstrate that there is no shortage of intelligent and gifted women, all with the potential to become great business leaders and entrepreneurs. And it is events like the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year award, which showcase the best of female business and entrepreneurship, plus a greater focus on mentoring, that will inspire a future generation of strong female business leaders - and perhaps even help us out of our current economic woes.


Laura Tenison is the founder and managing director of JoJo Maman Bébé. In 2010 she was named as the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year. MT editor Matthew Gywther will again be one of the judges for this year's prize, the shortlist for which will be announced next week...

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