Heather Jackson, founder of the Balanced Business Forum talks gender balance, diversity and parental leave

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The Balanced Business Forum (formerly known as The Women’s Business Forum) is the world’s first gender balanced leadership conference. It aims to challenge, debate and deliver effective leadership and organisational performance via the delivery of progressive and sustainable talent management solutions. Heather Jackson remortgaged her house to found the forum and then launched The Pearls Programme, which helps women at the middle stage of their career to advance into positions of leadership. HRreview caught up with Heather at this year’s forum, which was held in London in October.

As the founder of the Balanced Business Forum, one would assume that ensuring the business world is more balanced was something of a passion?

It wasn’t a passion, believe me, it wasn’t a passion, it was something that was really starting to irritate me. I am the mother of two children, a boy and a girl and I want them both to have choice and control in what they do and where they go. I want my son to be able to be a great father if he chooses but not to feel that he couldn’t have a career. I also don’t want him to feel that he has to be a bread winner, if, for example, he was with someone who had a better skill set for that role. I want my daughter to be able to have a career, if she wants one, and if she wants to have children and a career then she should be able to have that too. But equally if she chooses not to have children I want her to be able to feel comfortable saying ‘I don’t want children’, rather than ‘I can’t have children’. Society allows you to say ‘I can’t have’, but if you say ‘I don’t want’ you suddenly becoming the ball breaker. I want them both to have choice and control.

How well do you think your generation of women have done tackling issues surrounding gender balance?

My generation of women, we love them to bits, but we are a generation that has let a lot of women down. Many of my peers all went to university and polytechnics, as I did and we thought we were going to take on the world, but when it got hard we all packed off and went somewhere else, rather than looking to make changes. I realised that if we were not the generation that started to make changes, the next generation would just run into the same problems.

Has the issue of gender balance in the workplace improved over the six years you have been working on this project?

I think the issue has certainly been raised with leaders, but it needs to be raised with every leader and manager in the line. When it comes to execution and implementation, you only have to look at the audience of this conference, we have 120 companies with the intentions of creating a balanced business, but is there true diversity out there? No there isn’t.

I suppose it’s easy to say you have intentions, but it’s a different issue actually putting a policy into effect….

It is easy to put it into your mind and it’s easy to have it as something that you want to do, but how many businesses are really taking the actions? You can set targets, but if you’re not achieving them and if you’re not achieving them in a way that feels right for the business, then you’re not making actual change.

Do you think the fact that older men, who have reached the top of the career ladder and are now retiring later, is preventing women from getting the top positions in a company?

If you really look at the people who have made the difference on balanced buisness over the last five years, it is the men. They are the ones who have helped to bring more women forward and we don’t give them enough credit for it. Leaders like Chris Sullivan (former RBS deputy CEO) and Steve Varley (head of EY’s British arm) have made a real difference. As for getting rid of older CEOs, I don’ think there are that many older CEOs around anymore. We have got some great CEOs at the minute and six great women CEOs in the FTSE 100. But leading from the top is not enough, it is also up to leaders in the line to make changes too, businesses really need to go right down into the depths of their organisation and actually ask people what is being done. For example, a head office in London can produce some really good looking diversity figures, but if you look into offices in the north of the country and in the regions, it does not look as good. Find me a company at the moment who would be prepared to be sliced and diced and examined to see if there is a balanced and diverse approach all the way through.

So would you say there is a north/south split when it comes to diversity?

Yes, if I’m going to be really ballsy on this. The message has only got up to some of the companies in the north and it’s not because we don’t care, it’s just that the message has been kept to head offices in the city. Those who are running divisions in the north are not being given the attention they need, the leaders in the north need help on this issue to be able to solve it.

Would you say in the future an event like the Balanced Business Forum should be held in Manchester or Birmingham?

I’d go to New York, Birmingham and London, yes! It’s not just the UK and the north that has this problem it’s the whole world.

What about the issue of maternity and maternity leave is that something that is still able to put women off climbing to the top of the ladder, or has that got a lot better now?

I have been pilloried on this in the past. I’m the mother of two children, I’ve been a single mother for the majority of my business life. I was asked once if I thought children were debilitating to a woman’s career and I said only if you want them to be. I’m not saying that nonchalantly, there are many women who use children as an excuse. Today there is no need to when an environment exists where there is choice. Companies recognise that they want more women and are now ensuring that they have the flexibility through, for example, agile working.

So do you think the government is moving in the right direction on this? It was recently announced that shared parental leave would be extended to grandparents.

This was supposed to be about helping more women. I can’t think of anything worse than having to ask my mum if she would take over and be paid to do the job that I wanted to do as well….I mean, add on the guilt! Maybe a mother and father want more time to look after the children, rather than having to rely on grandparents. Companies are now really pushing to help with shared paternity and maternity leave so the policy is there, but parents have to be encouraged to have the conversation with businesses and help needs to be given to parents to work out how to manage shared parental leave. These conversations are currently not coming out of the front door.

Do you think something like extending shared parental leave to grandparents will encourage men not to take more paternity leave?

One of the biggest barriers to social change is actually our parent’s generation who can’t get used to the changes in parental leave. If a woman packs in her career for her children all you will hear is what a wonderful mother she is. If a man does the same or takes an extended period of time off to look after the children he’s treated by older parents as if he’s had a nervous breakdown! Grandparents are going to encourage their sons to go back to work, but men have to stand up against that. I think a social barrier is growing here that we are not really thinking about.

Do you think we are on the brink of a cultural change, say in the next ten years, when it comes to issues such as gender balance, diversity and perceptions of working parents?

I would be absolutely appalled, after all the work that has gone in, if by the time my son’s generation enters the workforce, they can enter as equals and know they have the choice and control to take themselves to the top. I’m not proud of it, but I once went to my son’s school sports day, turned round to take a business call and missed him winning a race. I never felt the confidence to say to the client that I was at my son’s sports day and couldn’t talk. That was not my company holding me back, that was me and I’m appalled about what I did. We have to talk more about flexibility and realise that we are not making sacrifices we are making choices.

Find out more about the Balanced Business Forum here: http://www.balancedbusinessforum.com/

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