How corporate fathers can learn from their daughters

Five male bosses whose daughters have encouraged them to advance the cause of women in business.

by Alison Maitland
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Sometimes, it takes a personal revelation to start a business revolution. If you're the chief executive or chairman of a company, it's likely that you are male and middle-aged. You have had no experience of gender discrimination; the world is your oyster. The problems that women face in the workplace were something you were informed about, but their troubles remained nebulous. Then your daughter came along and her struggles got you thinking ...

Not long ago, one of the top US finance execs was giving a speech about why diversity was important to his company. He covered the usual points about the business case and the need to draw on the widest pool of candidates for top jobs. What grabbed his audience's attention, however, was a personal confession about the impact on his leadership style of having daughters. 'I've changed in response to the question: am I the boss I'd like my daughters to have?,' he said. He'd realised that he hadn't been.

Direct experience is often the most powerful way to open minds. Male business bosses of the older generation, including most of those interviewed here, typically have non-working wives. They remain unfamiliar with the issues women encounter in the workplace, until their daughters start out on their careers.

Do daughters equip their high-flying business dads with special insights into the realities of life for women trying to navigate through the world of work? Niall FitzGerald, Irish-born former head of Unilever and now deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters, has two daughters as well as two sons, and believes they do. When his older daughter Tara went to Balliol College, Oxford, he was struck by 'how much harder she had to work and tougher she had to be' than her male counterparts.

Tara, now in her thirties and working in Mexico as a travel and lifestyle writer, was awarded a rowing blue after coxing for her university. She chose to cox all-male crews, and became the first woman to cox a winning men's crew at Henley Regatta, he recalls proudly. 'She just wanted to prove she was their equal.'

Her career in journalism began at Reuters, and his respect for her desire to be 'her own person' caused him to turn down the chairmanship of the media group when he was first approached. He did not even tell her about the offer, and it was only after she moved on in 2002 that he joined the board.

Tara was a strong influence in making him realise corporate culture had to change, FitzGerald says. 'Unless you pay attention to creating a climate where diverse talent can succeed, no amount of rhetoric and setting the direction from the top will work.'

At Unilever, he led a drive to get more women into the senior ranks - although progress is still slow, he says. He has spoken frequently on the importance of female as well as male strengths in corporate leadership. At Reuters, the board appointed its first women non-executive directors under his chairmanship.

He credits his younger daughter - eight-year-old Gabriella - with changing his attitude to work/life balance. He put a stop to breakfast meetings and kept weekends clear, so as not to miss her childhood. His 'rather selfish choice' had a ripple effect on colleagues, who also began to work differently. 'It's not about working less but about paying attention to the family, not just the women but the men too,' he says.

Like FitzGerald, the other top businessmen featured here are involved in initiatives to increase the number of women in business leadership. Four - FitzGerald, Roger Carr of Centrica and Cadbury, Iain Ferguson of Tate & Lyle, and Charles Miller Smith, former chairman of Scottish Power and ICI - were signatories to a letter published by the Daily Telegraph in the midst of last year's financial maelstrom (when it was mooted that men had got us into this mess in the first place).

Along with a dozen other chairmen and chief execs, they called for faster progress in appointing women to senior positions, arguing that Britain more than ever had to draw on the best talent. 'Business leaders have spoken out on the need for action on climate change and poverty,' they wrote. 'It is time to do the same on gender.'

They are involved in the FTSE-100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, which matches chairmen with senior women from other companies to help prepare women for board roles. Peninah Thomson, who co-founded the scheme in 2004, says several of the pioneer mentors had daughters and this was a factor in their decision to take part. 'Hearing about the things that have come up at the beginning of their daughters' professional lives, such as having to work relentlessly long hours over long periods, may have given one or two of the "founder" chairmen pause for thought,' she says. 'Otherwise, how do very senior men get to hear about these issues?'

Roger Carr and Sir John Bond of Vodafone are both participants in the Professional Boards Forum, a Norwegian-inspired initiative (Norwegian boards by law have to have 40% female membership) that enables aspiring female directors to demonstrate their boardroom skills to influential chairmen. Carr says his daughter Caroline, a lawyer at Goldman Sachs, has inspired him. 'When you have a talented daughter who is determined to overcome the practical challenges and overturn the traditional prejudice, it is difficult not to be both a believer and supporter of women in the workplace. It is a huge talent pool that must never be undervalued.'

He says when Caroline was a teenager she and her female contemporaries showed greater determination and application than boys of similar age. 'As they grew up, the competitive edge appeared to remain in place. As a lawyer in the competitive world of investment banking, she draws upon that determination and edge every day.'

Several themes emerge from our interviews with captains of industry and their daughters. One is the curiosity, courage and tenacity of the daughters, often against formidable odds. Bond's daughter Annabelle is an extreme-sports enthusiast who has climbed Everest. Tara FitzGerald has abseiled down the inside of extinct volcanoes.

Perhaps the most striking theme, though, is the fathers' desire to see a final breakthrough for women. As Roger Carr puts it: 'In my own career, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of women in business. In my daughter's career, I hope it ceases to be an issue and becomes an accepted norm of corporate life.'


His career had taken him to the top of HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, and he now occupies the chairman's seat at Vodafone, the mobile telecommunications colossus. Yet 68-year-old Sir John Bond still has a mountain to climb.

Straight after our meeting at his office in London's Park Lane, he is flying to Tanzania to trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro. His inspiration is his elder daughter Annabelle, who arrives for our interview straight from her two-year-old daughter's nursery. In 2004, Annabelle conquered Everest, the fourth British woman to do so. She went on to become the fastest woman to climb the 'seven summits' - the highest peaks on each continent. 'I've never stood on a summit the way she has, so I'm going to try and do that to see what it feels like,' Bond explains.

It's clear their relationship is one of mutual admiration - with some irreverence on her part. 'I couldn't do what she has done, but she could do what I do,' he says, describing her influence on the family.

She brushes off the compliment. 'I don't think it's that easy to influence Dad - he's been locked up in an office for about 40 years.'

She describes her father as inspirational and driven. 'We're obviously very similar in a lot of ways and maybe slightly different in others. I've focused that drive into extreme sports.' She first found her competitive streak when working in a property company in Hong Kong, but decided to channel it into raising funds for the Eve Appeal for ovarian cancer prevention, by taking part in extreme-sports challenges.

Annabelle is the oldest of three - two girls and a boy. Have Bond's daughters affected his view of women in the corporate world? 'Absolutely. It has shown me that they are capable of doing whatever they want to do. I'm certain it has changed me,' he says. 'I would look at every woman as being every bit as capable of doing my job and more.'

He recently got involved in Professional Boards Forum, an organisation founded by Norwegian entrepreneur Elin Hurvenes, which runs events for female board candidates to meet influential chairmen. 'I keep saying to anybody who'll listen: Mao Zedong had the good sense to say women hold up half the sky, but you wouldn't think so if you looked at the FTSE-100 boards.'

Women still account for less than 12% of FTSE directors. 'It's extraordinary,' he says. 'When you think that over half the clients of Vodafone are women and so many of the big choices in life are made by women ... apart from being unjust, it's bad business.'

The day of the interview has brought news that women in leading UK finance companies earn about 80% less in bonuses than male colleagues, a gender gap that Bond describes as 'unbelievable'.

He says he regrets that, as a young man, he accepted at face value that business was a man's world. 'I didn't really think about it. I don't know what I could have done in the early stages of my career, but one just accepted that this was the way it was and I regret that. I couldn't make up for it, but I'm a wiser person at the age of 68 than I was when I was 28.'


Lucy Ferguson and her father Iain look at each other and chuckle when I ask what their relationship is like. 'It's had its moments, hasn't it?' he says. She replies: 'We're either laughing or shouting.'

Both of them have done the Myers-Briggs personality test - a psychometric tool popular with high-achievers - which has helped them understand better where they get on and where their personalities collide. 'We're both very "big picture",' says Lucy, 24. 'But Daddy likes routine and regime and organisation ...' He interrupts: '... and being on time.' She continues: 'I'm a bit more spontaneous. It drives him mad.'

There's no shouting during the interview in the richly furnished 19th-century Knightsbridge mansion that belonged to the Tate family and is now a Tate & Lyle training centre and guesthouse. Iain Ferguson, who has just stepped down as chief executive of the sugar and sweeteners company, pours tea and offers biscuits. Father and daughter are simultaneously embarking on new careers. After her degree in theology and English from St Andrews - where both her parents were students - and a year working in financial PR, she is studying law and wants to be a barrister.

Meanwhile, her father is collecting a portfolio of directorships after 21 years running businesses, from Unilever's Birds Eye Wall's to Tate & Lyle. He already chairs Wilton Park, a Foreign Office agency and forum for international dialogue, is honorary vice-president of the British Nutrition Foundation, and is on the board of Greggs, the bakery chain, among other non-executive posts.

Having a daughter - she is an only child - made him see women at work in a different light. 'In Tate & Lyle, it has made me realise that every woman we have working with us is somebody's daughter, and by definition they must have their hopes and aspirations as well.'

The big eye-opener was when Lucy decided to move from her all-girls private school to a large state-run sixth-form college - only to change her mind and move back after half a term. She says she was a horrible teenager.

'No, I wouldn't say horrible,' he counters. 'I would say challenging. It took a lot of courage to go, and even more courage to admit that you were wrong. I was full of huge admiration for that. I think it's when I first realised you're an independent person.'

This made him reflect on the career conversations taking place with women in the company. 'When we're talking to these young women, are we really connecting with what they want? Are we asking the right questions here, rather than trying to force-fit people into our view about what a female version of a male career should be? Maybe we should ask: what's the male version of a female career?'

Lucy fleshes this idea out. 'Nowadays, with paternity and maternity leave, society has to start looking at a different model and just assume automatically that everyone is likely to take a large amount of time off at some point.'

It's about moving beyond stereotypes, her father concludes. 'I quite like things that fit into models I understand, and I suppose I discovered with Lucy that there definitely are models I don't understand.'


'When I joined Linklaters in 1993, you were not allowed, as a woman, to wear trousers,' says Caroline Miller Smith. 'I tell the trainee solicitors now and they look at me like I'm a dinosaur.' She laughs. 'It makes you think how far we've come. There were maybe one or two female partners then who had children, but it was quite odd and unusual. I think the culture has changed positively, for men as well as women.'

Caroline, 41, became a partner at the City law firm five years ago. She combines her high-flying career with raising three children. Her younger sister Fiona, 39, an entrepreneur and former investment banker, has two little boys. Their father Charles, former chief executive of ICI and chairman of Scottish Power, listens intently as they talk about their careers. 'The practical difficulties they have come up against have always intrigued me,' he says. 'I saw the issues they were facing.'

What kind of issues? He says Goldman Sachs, where Fiona started her career, has 'a very male-dominated culture', despite its diversity policy. He also mentions that when she worked in private equity there was 'socially unacceptable' behaviour - including a stripper - at dinners she attended.

His daughters, whose older brother works at asset management firm BlackRock, have had a powerful influence on his thinking. 'I saw via their careers that institutions were struggling with how to adapt their culture and structures to the new force in their workplace.'

With their strong Scottish roots, father and daughters share a thoughtful seriousness, an ethic of self-reliance and a concern for women's advancement. Charles Miller Smith has mentored aspiring women board directors through the FTSE-100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme since its launch in 2004. They talk about how hard it can be for women to maintain their true identity in male-dominated companies. They discuss the difficulty of taking even a three-week holiday - let alone a six-month career break - without finding oneself displaced in a fast-moving business world.

'The reality of corporate life now is that people don't take the long view,' says Fiona, who has run a business and a communications agency, selling her stake in both, and is now looking at start-up opportunities. 'One of the great benefits of talking to my Dad is that he takes the long view.'

'Dad' turns 70 this month and has had nearly 50 years in industry. Today, he is an adviser to private-equity group Warburg Pincus and to Deutsche Bank, is a director of an Indian outsourcing company, still chairs Scottish Power's advisory board and has become an investor in the film industry.

His long view is optimistic for women. 'There's this huge shift from West to East taking place in economic power,' he says. 'There's going to be a huge social shift as well, as eastern mores and culture begin to dominate world politics and business practice. One aspect of that is the role of women. The East is better than the West on this. When we lived in India, Mrs Gandhi totally dominated India. Look at the role women play in China: they have huge responsibility ... I really do believe the world is on the cusp of change.'

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