View from above the glass ceiling

Lucy Bisset, Senior Consultant, Robert Walters

In traditionally male-dominated work environments, a renaissance of females in leadership roles is slowly breaking down office stereotypes.

A champion for female leadership with unrivalled expertise in her industry, Lucy Bisset, Director at Robert Walters, discusses shattering stereotypes the importance of paving the way for women in senior careers. 

It’s been found that women often shy away from the term leader, example, pioneer, expert. As a women in a senior position, why do you feel it’s important to let your voice be heard?

It’s not surprising to hear that women shy away from certain terms – or any term! I think it’s fair to say that still today there is a lot of different connotations with the way men are described vs women.

A man can have gravitas, confidence and be assertive. For women it’s not uncommon to see the same behaviour be described as taking things too seriously, being too brash, or aggressive. The derogatory term ‘ball buster’ comes to mind – something which a man would never be referred to as in the work environment.

And so for me its important that we’ve got strong female leaders that are:

  1. Helping to shatter these myths and stereotype and be aspirational for other women. Afterall you cannot be what you cannot see!
  2. It makes business sense to have a diversity of opinion at the senior level. In our Manchester office I am the most senior female person and from experience I can see the advantage of my opinion bringing in another perspective to a discussion.

When did the ‘penny drop’ for you – that you are in fact a role model to other women who are seeking senior careers?

My senior position and what it means to myself and other people hit home when I had my first child. Up until this point I guess subconsciously from what I had taken from society’s opinion was that women often got to a certain level in their careers, then had children and were presented with a choice thereafter – career or family.

Diversity of opinion is so valuable and we’re already seeing great strides in the number of women that have been attracted to their career because of changes in workplace culture and benefits.

And even for myself the societal assumption after my second child – does she even want to come back and do this?

For me the case was – notwithstanding or underplaying the fact that my life had transformed dramatically – when I walked back through the doors into the office, nothing had changed about me. I was still as ambitious as I was pre-children.

Something that I stand by is that it shouldn’t be that choice – why can’t women have a family and have a senior role. We should not have to take on more ‘flexible’ or ‘convenient’ roles within middle management or as a consultant if that is not a part of our plan. Why does there have to be a point where I or someone else says that you can’t do both?

Workplaces are doing a lot more for returning parents – including flexi-hours – but more needs to be done to make senior positions more accessible for working mums.

What has it been like for you being in a stereotypically male-dominated industry such as recruitment – and what made you stay?

For me its just a hard job – and I naturally gravitate towards a challenge. Being a female hasn’t played a part in me choosing this industry - its more that’s it’s a tough job, sales driven, target orientated and a pressurised environment.

It’s a challenging environment – yes – but I don’t know why its historically male dominated. Possibly because of the hours, there aren’t as many women in recruitment in their 30s & 40s – I guess in your 20s maybe the number of hours you work has less impact on personal life. For me I’ve been very fortunate in trying to juggle both.

You’ve got to have confidence and a level of self-belief in this industry – but I don’t think that is a male or female thing. I guess when you do break it down there may be statistically more men with self-belief.

Again diversity of opinion is so valuable to this industry and we’re already seeing great strides in the number of women that have been attracted to a career in recruitment because of the changing workplace culture and benefits.

What are the common misconceptions you come across that people may have of you – a woman in a senior position?

Probably that I am a bitch – it’s just so easy to say about women in senior positions. There is a constant battle in not allowing this term to get to me.

I have a development coach and we focus on what I think about yourself rather than what do other people think about me. We are so self-aware and conscious that we are bothered about what our perception is of what other people think or see in us.

Does it bother me that I may be referred to as a ‘tough cookie’ or a ‘ball buster’ instead of someone who has grown their team from myself to 35 people and is generating a solid operating profit? It can do, if I choose to think about it like that. But its important to know your own truths and stick to that.

I make it a point of staying true to myself and doing the right thing in the situation I’m in. I like to aim to be fair and reasonable – and that’s how I hope people describe me. I choose to focus on this rather than me focusing on what negative connotations people may have to say.

The boardroom – a tough crowd for a female leader apparently. Any advice?

I think its fair to say for most women, across almost all industries, who have sat in on senior meetings that it is quite evident that we’re still not very diverse – in every sense, from gender to race.

As a result I’m very conscious of being present in the room, I want to get my voice heard and ensure there is a diversity of opinion. However I still stand by not speaking for the sake of it.

Preparation is key. Do your research and ultimately people will respect you – not because you ‘broke the glass ceiling’ – but because you are knowledgeable in your field. Experience has taught me that you gain credibility by having a good insight and awareness of your market or topic. From that perspective, I always make sure that I’m planned and prepared.

What more can men do to help bring about equality?

Just to speak up. And not on behalf of women, but for themselves. I’ve got men on my team who are managers and who also have families. For situations like this its important that men help to highlight that this is not just a women’s issues or a mothers fight.

For example; one male colleague of mine has a family and works from home on Wednesday’s to help with pick-up and childcare. In this day and age it’s a lot more commonplace to find parents who are both career orientated.

But yes, men definitely need to be doing more to champion equality – and that’s not just listening but putting into action what they believe in. And in turn these men should be championed – we have to appreciate that given that its not the norm its something that is subconsciously much harder for men to go out and do.

Are we doing enough to breakdown other stereotypes in the office – the idea of masculinity?

In all honesty, collectively I don’t believe we are doing enough yet in this area. For people in senior positions their role plays such an important part in this – in whether they are helping to break down or perpetuate stereotypes.

With all issues – not just mental health – empathy and ease of access to senior leaders is so important. I operate an open door policy where both my male and female employees can talk to me about their concerns, problems and successes and they don’t get treated any differently. I urge all people in senior positions to ensure they have worked on this area of themselves – stereotypes and barriers in the office will be removed much quicker if it’s a top-down approach.

Any advice to your younger self?

Surprisingly – no! I wouldn’t do anything differently in order to get to where I am today. On reflection – and coming from an all girls school - I guess I was naive to any gender issues or battles that I may have been up against in my career. I guess this stopped me from building any unnecessary barriers or disbelief in my ability.

For me and my northern self it was always about the hard graft – and that knows no gender!


This interview was originally featured in Manchester Evening News.
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