Choosing to challenge – Chika Russell reflects on what it’s like to be a woman in business

Chika Russell, founder of Chika's Foods, holding salt and vinegar crisps

This article is penned by Chika Russell, founder of Chika’s Food

In honour of International Women’s Day, Business Leader asked CHIKA’S Foods founder, Chika Russell, what it means to be a woman in business today. This is what Chika chooses to challenge….

Being a woman in business is, for me, exciting, engaging and rewarding on many levels. That said, I know that my disposition is undoubtedly a positive one and when you are busy working on something that really interests you it is easy to overlook the additional challenges faced by women. When women are successful, it is often a greater achievement as they are likely to have to overcome obstacles that just don’t arise for everyone.

At the start of my career, I was the only black woman in my area of the bank and as a naïve twenty-something-year-old, I don’t think I was aware of whether my opportunities were different to the men I worked with. A bit older and wiser I can see now how some combination of prejudice, male managers and unconscious bias worked against women like me.

I’m not one to dwell on what I don’t have or ponder whether my journey is a harder one. Instead, I feel fortunate to have received good counsel from women and men along the way. As Nelson Mandela saw it, “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated and passionate about what they do”.

The environment for women is improving with greater representation at more senior levels, training in larger companies making employees aware of biases and initiatives like the Gender Pay Gap shining a light on inequality. However, I hear enough stories from friends working for large companies to know that cultural change takes a long time and we have a way to go yet. My industry of FMCG (Fast-moving consumer goods) has good representation of women across different titles. I’m part of an initiative called Grocery Girls where women support other women to be successful and we are fortunate to have backing from large industry players like Co-Op.

I see the pandemic as having two main impacts on women, differing starkly in terms of their current experience versus what it means for the future. Working from home, homeschooling and children being in the house 24/7 disproportionately affects women. Without the support mechanism of children being at school, school lunches, sports clubs and freedom to mix, women are the more likely of two parents to be filling the gaps. Impacted even more are single-parent families which are 90% women. Trying to balance the roles of educating, cooking, cleaning and entertaining while trying to work from home disproportionately impacts women. Looking forward, what is going to benefit women is the new found acceptance of flexible working that will persist as the pandemic eases and, as women have historically been more likely to use this flexibility, removing the stigma around it is beneficial.

My business has always and intentionally had a diverse team and that reflects who we are and what we aspire to be, and not just because our company logo is a strong African woman. It’s core to what we do. It has been interesting running a business in this environment and I’m positively surprised by how we’ve made it work in spite of the challenges of being mothers and parents while trying to work. A far greater obstacle is when it comes to fund-raising where, as a women-led business, the statistics give a bleak picture of how far from being a level playing field it is. A paltry 1% of VC funding in the UK goes to women-led businesses, giving a sense of the magnitude of securing capital to accelerate the growth of smaller enterprises. When just 5% of FTSE 100 companies are run by women and barely one-hundredth of the capital available to fast-growing business is allocated to women it shows the scale of the problem.

From my own viewpoint, the task of pushing greater diversity is the responsibility of company leaders, stakeholders and employees. The 95% of FTSE 100 CEOs who are men might not all be the most motivated actors to do this and so the underlying investors have an important role to play here. The much greater focus on ESG, particularly the ‘S’ and the ‘G’, looks to be an important force for bringing about change that benefits women. Aside from any other reasons, research shows that this greater diversity makes companies more sustainable and more profitable, so these are the right decisions ethically as well as for shareholders. Those leaders of companies who don’t ‘get it’ need to be challenged by their boards and shareholders to address this. However, the real-world example of the single mother encouraged by HR to book a 30-minute break in her diary, who is consistently interrupted by her male manager, shows that in spite of greater awareness of the issues and steps to address them, it will take more time and more pressure to bring about meaningful change.