Interview with Professor Lesley Sawers

You need to make the effort to connect, sometimes it’s not a comfortable thing to do but it will pay dividends for your career or business

You recently completed a Review into the role and contribution of women to the Scottish economy what where the key findings from that work?
The key findings of the Review can be summarised in three main areas. Firstly, the need to mainstream equalities and to stop talking about it as a “women’s issue. We need more men engaged in delivering solutions and in championing a balanced approach to business and economic growth. Secondly, there is the need for an agreed set of performance measures to enable policy makers, companies and government to better assess the impact of programmes and initiatives on issues such as the gender pay gap, talent pipelines, educational attainment etc. We need to work on the basis that “if it gets measured it gets done”. At the moment, we have no way of evaluating the impact or measuring the effectiveness of a lot of gender related activity. Thirdly, many women themselves identified the need for more focused and tailored mentoring programmes, which could provide them with the support, role models, and career advice they need.

Over 1,000 women and organisations across Scotland contributed to the Review – what did they tell you?
Most of the companies, organisations and women we spoke to wanted change. Over 90% of respondents didn’t believe that equality had been achieved in the workplace in Scotland. Similarly, the majority of people, over 56%, also supported the introduction of gender quotas on public boards. Other key themes that emerged in discussions included better mentoring, access to support networks, more female role models, improvements in flexible working and the importance of family networks particularly in rural and island communities in supporting many women to run their own businesses or pursue their careers.

You highlight the ‘demographic timebomb’ and impact of an ageing female workforce, what does that mean and what can we do about it?
We didn’t set out to look specifically at the impact of ageing on the economy. However, it became apparent through this work, that we have a significant proportion of 50+ women working in low pay, low skill sectors in Scotland that will be adversely affected by technology and declining employment trends. Many of these women are also family carers, looking after parents and grandchildren having supported their own families, they are also less likely to engage in training and have less formal qualifications. We need a coordinated Gender Workplace Plan that focuses on retraining, reskilling needs and which also identifies the opportunities or enterprise start-up support we can provide to this group.

You talk a lot about the importance of the support networks for women not only as entrepreneurs but also in the workplace, what advice would you give to women in terms of helping them develop their own networks?
One of the key findings from the Review was the amount of activity underway and support that already exists in Scotland to help women in the workplace, in education, to start their own businesses and to build support networks. However, what is apparent is that these activities are not joined up and there are gaps in support in a number of areas across the county. It will get easier, but I would encourage women to go out and find what works for you. There are many organisations listed on the web, through Chambers, business support services, within sectors and through magazines like Business Women Scotland. You need to make the effort to connect, sometimes it’s not a comfortable thing to do but it will pay dividends for your career or business.

You’ve had a very varied and successful career in the private, public and academic sectors both as an Executive and in a Non Executive role, what career advice would you give to younger women?
I have been fortunate in my own career to have the support of a range of mentors, who have guided me at specific points in my working life. However, at the end of the day, only you can make the difference. Do what you enjoy, do it to the best of your ability and chase the opportunity not the money. Finally and most importantly, help others especially younger women.