Chair at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), Clare Chapman will be speaking at the Great British Businesswoman Forum next week.

clare chapman webvision

Livestreaming on October 14, the Great British Businesswoman Forum will bring industry leaders together to examine the challenges that women in business face today.

The Forum comprises a series of webinars that will give a global audience opportunity to build knowledge and obtain guidance on how to support the next generation of women business leaders.

Prior to her position at Acas, Clare Chapman was Group People Director of BT Group Plc and Director General of Workforce at the Department of Health. She was also Group Personnel Director of Tesco Plc and HR Vice President with PepsiCo in Europe. She is also currently a Non-Executive Director and Remuneration Committee Chair on the Boards of The Weir Group and M&G and is a Trustee for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Reconciliation Ministry.

We spoke with Clare to hear her thoughts on how companies can address gender barriers in the workplace and allow women to realise their full potential.

Q) Could you outline your career journey up to your current role at Acas?

I was glad to have had the chance to go to an all-girls school - it meant that girls were given the opportunity to shine in their own environment. At the outset, I was somewhat shy but with encouragement I learnt increasingly to trust my own instincts and take risks. I was even made a Head Girl and it was then that it started to dawn on me just how important and powerful women’s voices can be. Also, how much of a responsibility we all have to ‘spot’ people with potential and give them the chance to do more. I bet we can all remember the name of the first person who showed belief in us and gave us an opportunity. This was a lesson that has stayed with me all my life – often individual conversations become a chance to find people ready to really push their boundaries and connect them with relevant opportunities.

I went to university intending to be a journalist, but that didn’t transpire, and took the opportunity to train as a buyer at Harrods. It was like going to the Sandhurst of retailing and I was hooked. I quickly realised there’s a big world out there.

I joined the USA firm Quaker Oats in the UK who were brilliant at staff development. They sponsored me to do a Master’s Degree and the week I had to give in my dissertation – and the week before I got married – I was offered the opportunity to go to the USA to do a presentation on behalf of my boss. I had plenty of reason to decline but couldn’t resist the chance to visit America for the first time. It made for a hectic week but it was a bet worth taking. The presentation went well and when we came back from our honeymoon, there was a job opportunity with Quaker Oats in Chicago. Luckily, my husband also worked for a company who had a big American subsidiary so we both headed off to the USA.

We both loved working internationally so when I was offered a promotion back in Europe with Pepsi Cola I took it, and my husband moved once again with his own firm. I then went on to work for Tesco back in the UK, before moving to the Department of Health. This was a tough role with responsibility for workforce policy impacting over 2.3 million employees across the NHS and Social Care. I learnt so much as a woman and as an executive – particularly since I had also to deal at the same time with the death of my much-loved husband. It was a moment where my faith and resilience were sorely tested, but with an amazing network of support I came through it.

The time as a Director-General in Health was also a moment to really learn the value of strategic alliances and partnerships. Given the size and complexity of the health service in the UK this was the only way to achieve anything of any significance. Along with colleagues we worked on significant pieces of national policy – including the NHS Constitution and the Social Partnership Forum – which have really withstood the test of time. From there I went back to the private sector with BT and then eventually into various non-executive board roles and recently into the role of Acas Chair. This is a role I love. There are strong executive and non-executive teams at Acas and together we are all bringing our diverse expertise to realise Acas’s purpose to make working life better for everyone.

Many people say that their careers were very planned, but that’s not my experience. Opportunities arise, and you have the courage to say ‘yes’. Also because of the people you know, the networks you develop, the skills you refine and the resilience you develop through the school of hard knocks. My CV suggests tidy progression but in truth, it’s been a case of generous people spotting me and giving me the chance to do more. That’s why I try to do the same for others.

Q) According to Acas findings, what are some of the primary challenges that women face when it comes to realising potential on the current business landscape?

Women are making extraordinary progress in the workforce, but I think that the pandemic once again has shone a bright light on underlying challenges. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid crisis – particularly through job losses – and they still have the majority of the caring and other household responsibilities which brings a whole range of pressures and requirements to juggle priorities.

After looking at the Acas helpline calls, it’s clear that the basics are still not in place yet, particularly at the lower end of the job market and particularly around flexible working. There are still misunderstandings about the Right to Request and concerns about perceived fairness and consistency of decisions. Lack of clarity alone can lead to conflict. In 2021, Acas received nearly 300 early conciliation requests and 135 employment tribunal cases around flexible working.

The pay gap is real, too. Women still earn on average 15% less than men. There is a backdrop of steady progress but there are many issues still to be grappled with as we re-imagine work coming out of the pandemic.

Q) Why is it essential that business communities do all they can to break down the barriers women face to realising their potential?

We have heard more again this week about people and skills gaps in the U.K. It’s absolutely daft that employers would lose out of 50% of the workforce because they’re not creating the conditions to allow women to thrive and succeed alongside male colleagues.

While I was the Group HR Director at Tesco, we couldn’t work out why we had so few female store managers, particularly when we looked at other retailers and realised that some were doing better than we were. When we analysed our workforce, we saw just how many talented female managers were working for us who were just not able to access the store manager roles. While we had a sizeable proportion of people working in part-time roles, at the store manager level we were close to 100% working full time.

With insight comes responsibility and we quickly re-designed the store manager role so that it was possible to do it part time. This was relatively straight forward because in stores open 24 hours a day it wasn’t viable for a single store manager to cover every shift. We set about redesigning the work and quickly started to see many more talented women being appointed as store managers.

All companies are different so each need to analyse their own blockages to equal opportunities and then do their own job redesign, culture and skill building to enable all to succeed. Indeed, this is critical to national growth as well as individual progression and workplace success. Truly diverse companies are often more responsive and consequently more innovative and productive.

Q) Have our experiences with Covid brought this issue to a head?

I am sure that Covid-19 and our experiences over recent months period have shone a spotlight on underlying issues that we’ve known about for a long time.

The necessity of moving so many people to work from home – some call it a national experiment in remote working – is an example. It has uncovered the very real challenges of remote and hybrid working: from tech to line management, to maintaining team working and supporting work-life balance for women and men alike. Covid-19 for sure put a new light on the pressures women in paid work face as many simultaneously managed caring roles.

We have also gained a new understanding of the interaction between work and wellbeing. Take mental health for instance. It’s four years since the government commissioned Lord Stephenson and Paul Farmer to review mental health and work giving real momentum to the importance of this issue. Progress has been made but the impacts of Covid-19 have really stress-tested our understanding of what’s needed. Moving towards greater parity between physical and mental health at work has to be one of the top policy and work place priorities for the future.

Shocks often create a spur for change. The #metoo movement stimulated an overdue and appropriate reaction to women’s experience of sexual harassment at work. Acas, for instance, really strengthened our guidance on this matter. A similar reaction was the creation of the #blacklivesmatter movement following the tragic circumstances around the death of George Floyd in the USA.

Q) Are there other industry success stories?

There are many success stories and I am hoping we’ll hear about many of them in this week of celebrating female leaders. For instance, there is a steady increase in the number of women on Boards and that’s partly as a result of regulation but also because there is a lot happening to create the conditions for women to be able to succeed.

I’ve just come off the Board at Heidrick & Struggles in the USA and one of the barriers they recognised to Boards making diverse appointments on both sides of the Atlantic was the size of talent pools of diverse people ready to appoint. Heidrick therefore introduced an innovative new programme – using their experience as an international headhunter – to help companies spot and develop executives from diverse backgrounds with potential for Board roles. Through the programme, high potential executives are given the opportunity for an ‘observer’ placement on big boards for a couple of years to learn the skills, create the networks and develop the experience and confidence to apply for non-executive opportunities; it’s a win/win. Diverse talent progresses and contributes whilst the national and international talent pool increases.

As a result of serving on the Board of The Weir Group, I can also see the strides they are making in creating the conditions for diverse talent to thrive and contribute. The Weir Group are a global engineering firm headquartered in Scotland. Their ‘We are Weir’ values reinforce how a culture of equality and opportunity are critical to innovation, customer solutions and company success.

Weir’s recent employee surveys across the world signal progress and this is taken very seriously. Weir people know that what sets them apart from competitors is that they can ‘see things differently’. Their diverse perspectives challenge the norm and they turn this into innovative engineering solutions with and for their customers.  

Engineering has not always been an environment where women see opportunity but recent employee surveys across the world show progress on this. This once again reinforces for me that when the conditions can be designed well and there’s a mindset that diversity matters then there is no reason why opportunities can’t be more equal.

Q) What practical steps can chiefs take to begin improving the situation? Are there any priority areas to be addressed?

I love the challenge that Indra Nooyi has brought to the world of work conversation in the last month. Indra was the CEO and Chair of PepsiCo and I remember her from my time with the company. Indra is consistently ranked amongst the world’s 100 most powerful women and she has recently set the challenge that society needs to use the opportunity coming out of the pandemic to really blend work and family and advance the opportunity of women in the 21st century. This is a big ask and at the level of company chiefs. I think it sets four challenges for business leaders to:

1. Be role models

It’s critical that leaders inspire all employees on why diversity matters. It’s not an exercise in being worthy but rather it’s mission critical. Solving the world’s problems whilst improving living standards requires that we leverage all the talents available to us.

Business leaders also need to take the time to properly analyse their workforce so they know what barriers exist, and address the blockages. This will often require big changes to the way that companies operate and people behave. We need a culture of trust so we can embark on bold experiments.

And of course, leaders need to stay humble, keep learning and keep challenging pre-existing assumptions. It’s beholden on us all to keep educating ourselves, to really listen and to understand what matters to diverse groups of employees and then do something about it.

2. Be ambitious with clear expectations

Good people often thrive in an environment of ambitious goals. The challenge for leaders is to be purposeful and set clear expectations then support people to succeed. This includes being transparent about the opportunities for innovation and experimentation. What this looks like needs to be tailored to every organisation. There are rarely single answers since all employee groups are different and people like to have a hand in designing their own solutions. It’s also important to seek the truth on what progress is being made. Methods to track and learn need to be quickly established so you know if you’re winning and good ideas can be shared quickly.

3. Develop skill and will

I’ve learnt over the years to be patient with skills gaps but completely intolerant of will gaps. And addressing skill gaps really does matter.

A lot of evidence exists, for instance, that women are progressing very well in staff jobs (i.e. support roles like Marketing and Human Resources) but there are fewer women in line or operating jobs (like store managers or sales people). But it’s the operating jobs that are the ones that often prepare you to be a divisional manager or a chief executive. There are some great examples in the UK of companies that intentionally equip women to move into roles that will allow them to progress in both staff and line jobs.

Progression isn’t the only prize however. I remember some important research work we did at Tesco which showed that many employees are as interested in participation as they are in promotion. Knowing what ‘getting on’ looks like for all people in the firm rather than just for managers is critical to helping all employees contribute fully. Many routes for success are needed.

4. Remove barriers and reward behaviours

This concerns the hard stuff: get your recruitment right, your promotion systems right, get reward systems right. If you don’t do intentional work to design and reward the right behaviours then leaders run the risk of never really embedding progress into the DNA of the company.

As we come out of Covid-19 I am sure we are at a defining moment. As we re-imagine the world of work we’ll all need to continue the bold experimentation we’ve seen over recent months.

Of course, we’ll need to continue to protect the health of employees and customers and navigate disruption to company operations and plan the recovery. But it’s also a defining moment for diversity and inclusion. This is not a question of being ‘worthy’ but rather it is about companies seeing diversity as a competitive advantage. This will mean they are best placed to have the most effective teams able to adapt, learn and grow and bring solutions to world problems. Bring it on.

Don’t miss Clare Chapman at the Great British Businesswoman Forum, where she leads our panel debate: “Next Gen: Supporting the Next Generation of Women Leaders”.

Also on the panel:

  • Tribeni Chougoule, Regional Social Impact Lead, Europe, Visa
  • Louise Court, Former Editorial Director, Hearst UK
  • Chloe Lewis, Programme Director, The Catalyst Collective
  • Krystyna Gadd, Founder of How to Accelerate Learning and Author of ‘How not to waste your money on training’ (Lighthouse, 2019).

Panel debate time: 15:15 BST

Date: October 14

Click here to reserve your space at Great British Businesswoman Forum today.