International Women’s Day: Choose to challenge

Employment & Skills | Interview
Alex Hatchman
Alex Hatchman

Alex Hatchman has recently been appointed as the first female CEO of Fletchers Solicitors, and has first hand experience of what it’s like to be a female in leadership within a male-dominated industry such as law. Alex strongly believes in championing women in business and has shared her thoughts on International Women’s Day 2021 and insights about women pursuing management positions. She spoke to Business Leader about the importance of today.

Why is it important to celebrate International Women’s Day?

I wrote an article for International Women’s Day last year and as part of this I did some research into the percentage of global female leaders, both on a per capita basis and on an economic basis.  This is a subject I have been passionate around for some years now and even I was surprised by the results.  My conclusion from these was that we would need to celebrate IWD, not just for years to come, but for decades to come.

The theme this year is ‘Choose to Challenge’. How can staff challenge gender inequality in the workplace?

I think this is a big question.  In fairness, women have been choosing to challenge gender inequality in the workplace for a long time.  However it is becoming more acceptable, and there is a greater willingness to listen to constructive challenge.  When challenging gender inequality, I would encourage thoughtfulness around which battles to fight and how and when to fight them.  This is important to maximise chances of success, and minimise unintended consequences.

How can women have the confidence to challenge gender inequality in the workplace?

Confidence can be drawn from multiple sources.  Firstly, and importantly, know your rights.  Knowing your rights is an essential hygiene factor in this discussion.  Secondly, research and discuss this subject more widely.  Challenging from a position of being informed gives strength.  Thirdly, use your influencing skills to maximum effect.  Start with those who are more sympathetic and work progressively towards those whose mindset needs resetting.

What does the theme ‘Choose to Challenge’ mean to you in your work life?

For me it means a continuation.  I have been choosing to challenge for the last decade of my career, and I do not anticipate stopping before I retire! 

Alex then spoke to BL about what it means to be a woman in leadership within a male-dominated industry.

What has been the biggest challenge for you throughout your career?

I would say that the transition from being a driven, single-minded professional to being a no-less-driven professional, wife and mother has been the greatest challenge.  This was especially the case after having children, as they rightly pull on much of your spare time.

If you have previously been dedicated to your career, there is naturally an element of rebalancing that needs to take place.  Succeeding with this juggling act requires support from your partner and family, and it requires you to actively manage your time.

For example, since becoming a mother I am less tolerant of sitting in meetings where the purpose isn’t clear or there aren’t defined outputs.  That time is time I will never get back!

Are there any specific obstacles or challenges that you have faced in a leadership role due to your gender? This could be in the recruitment process or within the workplace.

I, like many if not most professional women, have faced issues that relate to my gender.  Some of those issues have been explicit and conscious, and some of those issues have been tacit and unconscious. I, like many if not most professional women,
have faced issues that relate to my gender.

Having children was enlightening as I experienced things that I didn’t expect.  For example, before returning to work after my first child a senior advisor to the board called me to check if I was “still the same Alex, as women can sometimes go a bit funny after having children”.  A few days earlier, my line manager openly asked me if I planned to have any more children.  It wasn’t too surprising then that when our second child was born, we called her Emmeline (after British political activist and leader of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst).

While it was difficult realising that the world of work was unfair, I’m glad it happened as it opened my eyes to the world as it is, and not as I imagined it to be.  In learning this lesson I can play a small part in helping resolve it, both for my daughter and for other women who come after. 

What are some factors that may put women off pursuing leadership roles, and how can we combat this?

There are a number of reasons for this.  One of these is that the journey can be tough.  I saw a video recently which was published by the office of the Mayor of London.  It takes place in an underground station and shows men taking the escalator up while women take the stairs up.  Another image shows a woman with a child, and not only is she taking the stairs, she is carrying the buggy up the stairs!  I thought this was a great representation of how tough it can be.

Another reason is that women can deselect out [of pursuing leadership roles] because they have an inaccurate perception of what it takes to succeed.  Our frames of reference on what it takes to succeed are often based upon what has gone before us, which is why it is so important that we create more female role-models that other women can identify with.  Those women that have succeeded have a special responsibility to then share their path, and not to pull the ladder up behind them.

“Women that have succeeded have a special responsibility to then share their path, and not to pull the ladder up behind them.”

 The last one to call out is that women are yet to achieve equality at home.  Research shows that women do significantly more unpaid care work than men, looking after young children and elderly parents.  We need to share this burden more evenly, otherwise women will face two points of disadvantage and not just one.

Why is it important that women have leadership positions in the legal industry?

I think it is important that women have leadership positions in every industry and every walk of life.  It is also important that the team who sits on the board of any organisation is similar in profile to their employees and to their customers.  There is plenty of research in this area (McKinsey has published a number of seminal papers) that shows that diverse businesses outperform those that are homogeneous.

Have you seen a change in attitudes towards women in leadership over the years?

I have seen some change in attitudes, in particular at non-executive level, which gives us room for optimism.  In addition, I am encouraged by the women and men who are leaning into this issue to resolve it.  However, the rate of change is objectively slow and needs accelerating.  I hope that the world in which my son and my daughter grow up in becomes one where applying the same level of time, effort, and hard work will enable them to each achieve the same rewards.

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