International Women’s Day: Representation, gender identity and the role of business

Each year, International Women’s Day seems to get bigger. There seems to be more people paying attention and more coverage than ever before. This year was no different and I was pleased to see so many people from around the Virgin Group gathering for our panel discussion.

I was joined by Liv Little, founder of gal-dem, Holly Branson, Chair of Virgin Unite and author of WEconomy, and Natalie Pinkham, presenter for Sky Sports F1, for a discussion on representation, gender identity and what businesses can do to empower women.

Statistics show us that although 50 per cent of graduates are women, that percentage drops lower and lower as you rise up the ranks in the workplace – and even fewer women of colour make it to the senior roles. Liv made some excellent points around the issue of representation – she said that she hopes to see a day that we will see women of colour in senior roles as unexceptional - across politics, the arts, in decision making capacities, being those people with access to resources and the funds and the networks to make things happen. It’s definitely something that I want to see change in the future, and something we’re working on at Virgin to address. We also discussed how it’s important to consider diversity in the widest sense, including recognising the fluidity of gender, which is something we fully support at Virgin.

Brands haven’t always been the most forward-thinking when it comes to gender equality and identity. I was heartened to see John Lewis introduce gender neutral children’s clothing last year – but less encouraged by the media backlash. Brands won’t always get it right, and certainly we can attest to that, but I think recognising the issue and deciding to act is one important positive step.

It was also interesting to discuss our own personal and inherent biases and Natalie chatted about often finding herself conforming to gender stereotype dressing her son in blue and her daughter in pink, without even thinking about it. But, we all agreed that when it comes to business, gender stereotypes need to be left at the door and I was encouraged by the way that Natalie spoke about Formula One, saying that in her experience it’s a meritocracy and no-one cares what your gender or colour is so long as you work hard and are good enough. I hope that is true and would love to see that kind of attitude across more industries.

I was also inspired by Natalie’s tales of becoming a mother while working for Sky Sports F1 – firstly how supportive they were when she announced her pregnancy, how they said they would help her to manage long shifts and travel with becoming a mum, especially when she told us that was championed by a male boss – and in her opinion came from a totally authentic place. And secondly, when she told the story of how when her son was a newborn she would strap him to her and take him off into the pit lane at races. And I thought I was a hardworking mum taking my newborn into meetings with me!

When it comes to business, research shows us that the more diverse a leadership team is, the more profitable a business will be. Businesses are missing out on smart people, as Holly said during the discussion, businesses should mirror the community outside of it – and its customers too. Virgin Media is doing some good work in that area. Although just four per cent of apprentice engineers across the UK are female, the engineering apprenticeship at Virgin Media has a 50/50 split of male and female engineers. It’s a small but important step towards equality and one that we hope will be replicated across other companies in the future.

Having just published a book about businesses leading the charge in putting purpose at their centre, Holly was absolutely clear that a representative workforce is an essential pillar of a healthy business, and economy. I’m glad that’s something we can work on together on going forward.

We’ve been celebrating women at Virgin all week for International Women’s Day – you can catch up on some of the highlights on our Instagram page or watch the full panel discussion back on our Facebook page


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