This year’s group of 35 Women Under 35 are the myth-busters of business; shaking up the perceptions of what it takes to be a leader in every sector, from Premier League football to mining, to engineering and technology. No, you don’t have to be a foul-mouthed autocrat like Sir Alex Ferguson or a socially inept male geek to make it to the top of some of the UK’s most competitive businesses.
Instead, as our women show, so long as you are ferociously intelligent (all our five cover stars went to Oxbridge), hard working, ambitious and confident, it doesn’t matter whether you wear a skirt or trousers, have a beer belly or a pregnant bump.
Roma Agrawal is a structural engineer at WSP Group, one of the 8% of UK engineers who are female. This has been her year – she designed the foundations and spire of western Europe’s tallest building, the Shard. Working on it for the past six years, she was often the only female engineer on her team.
The physics graduate, originally from Mumbai, says it has been an advantage to be a woman in her line of work. ‘If I go to a meeting with clients and other engineers, I’m very often the only woman there and people tend to remember me for that.’
Fellow cover star Jenny Afia, a partner at reputation protection law firm Schillings, is more used to her clients – including Madonna, Michael Bublé and David Walliams – being on the receiving end of public attention than herself. It’s her they turn to when they want their privacy protected.
‘I love helping people in really challenging situations. You see the tangible difference you can make when someone is about to have their privacy completely invaded by a newspaper, and to be able to prevent that is a great feeling.’
Afia says she doesn’t think it has made a blind bit of difference being a woman in the law, but recognises that the tipping point comes for women in their 40s. ‘I wonder if women just get to a point where they do a balancing exercise between actually enjoying what they do and asking: is it worth the sacrifices? Do they get enough return on investment?’
Caroline Ng is our third corporate cover star and, as an investment director at Richard Branson’s holding company Virgin Management, is on close personal terms with the concept of ROI. The former Goldman Sachs investment banker enjoys a broad range of responsibilities making investments in Virgin’s health and wellbeing companies. ‘I don’t think it has been a major disadvantage or advantage being a woman,’ she says, but admits people can hold certain perceptions about how a woman ought to behave that are different for men.
As corporate practitioners, Ng, Agrawal and Afia all agree that men and women do not have gender-defined ways of managing and leading. The myth that women have a more empathetic or emotional approach and men a more linear, aggressive way of doing things needs to be dispelled, they feel. ‘Every single male boss I’ve had has been so completely different, and so have the female bosses,’ says Agrawal.
Afia agrees: ‘It’s probably more about the individual in terms of management style.’ Meanwhile, Ng says that although there’s a perception that ‘women can be more soft and approachable, there are many men who have those qualities’.
Our two entrepreneurial cover stars are Kathryn Parsons and Kate Shand. Parsons is a co-founder of Decoded, a business that claims it can teach anyone to code in a day. Clients range from board-level Talk Talk members to Unilever’s global innovation team. An Ogilvy graduate trainee who started her first business at 25, Parsons is a tech evangelist who decries the lack of women in science and technology. She wants to help rectify this problem. ‘What I hear from the women who come and learn with us is: "I can’t do this; my brain doesn’t work this way." I have to ask who created this myth,’ she says.
Finally, at the other end of the educational spectrum is Kate Shand, who is the founder of Enjoy Edu-cation, a private tuition business (see feature, p44). She discovered a love of tutoring during her convalescence from a skiing accident that left her with a broken back. With far more ambition and grit than the average graduate tutor, she decided to start her own business, and is now one of few female bosses in the sector. ‘I was 23 when I started the business and, being a female, there were a lot of judgements made about me,’ she says.
The only judgement MT makes of the 35 women listed here is how talented and ambitious they are.
See the full list here: MT's 35 Women Under 35 2013.
Behind the scenes at the photoshoot
Check out photos from the shoot at the Mum and Dad Studio in Curtain Road, Shoreditch.
Created with flickr slideshow.