Lisa Thomas on equality for women in the workplace

Virgin’s global head of brand, Lisa Thomas, is passionate about seeing women succeed in the workplace and is helping to make sure that happens at Virgin.

As part of our International Women’s Day 2017 celebrations, we caught up with her to find out more.

Which woman do you really admire?

I really admire Shelina Janmohamed for the work she has done to raise mainstream understanding around trends amongst modern young Muslims. I mentored her for a while and it has been a joy to see her career thrive. She now works at Ogilvy Noor, the world's first Islamic Branding & marketing consultancy agency, and has recently published her book, Generation M, which explores the explosion of entrepreneurialism and creative self-expression in the emerging Muslim middle class.

How do you prepare when you need to feel confident?

Like most people, I think about what I’m going to wear and make sure I’m feeling good in what I’m wearing. I used to have a red dress I’d wear when I wanted to feel great but now I work at Virgin it feels a bit too ‘on-brand’ when I go to wear it – so I need to find a replacement!

I’m also definitely one for as much preparation as possible. I’ll always lock myself away in the bathroom to practise and do a last minute final run through before a speech. And I’ve been known to practise in the mirror as well. It’s all about making sure you feel as confident as possible.

Read more: Irene Agbontaen on championing all women

When have you been proud of yourself for being bold?

I was really proud that we invited Maria Zverina, a transgender women who works at Facebook, to speak at Gather last year, which is a training day for young women in the industry.

The reason I’m proud is that it really pushed the boundaries of what was expected from a training day. The theme was stand up and speak up – and we asked Maria to come along to speak up for the change she has made in her life.

I’m proud of it because it was very brave of her, and even us to an extent. It transformed how people saw the role of a training event in people lives. It became more than just ‘I learnt a few things’ – it challenged perceptions of how hard their jobs were, and how you might be treated as a transgender women in the workplace was challenged. And she coped absolutely brilliant with it – she was very relaxed and very natural so I felt very proud of her as well.

On a personal level, I’m also currently feeling pretty proud of myself for sticking to my triathlon training – albeit still a bit daunted as well, especially by the swimming leg!

The fundamental thing I would really like to see is a genuine change in attitude

Who do you know that you respect for being bold for change?

This isn’t one person specifically, but I’m really proud that 40 per cent of the entrepreneurs we support at Virgin StartUp are female – when nationally only 19 per cent of businesses are female owned. It’s always inspiring when I meet some of women we support – doing everything from accounting services to plus size bras to pioneering beauty products.

What one thing would you most like to see change to improve gender equality?

I’m very proud that Virgin has some really forward-thinking People policies that aim to make balancing life and work easier – in particular motherhood. Several women have taken 12 months maternity leave on full-pay since we introduced that option for staff we’ve employed for over four years in 2015 – and we’re proud to have been able to support them in that way. We also embrace flexible working and have unlimited leave, for both men and women. It’s about treating people as adults and recognising we are humans with multi-faceted lives. It may not work for all businesses, but it’s been hugely successful for us and we’re happy to be a bit of a test bed for forward-thinking policies if it helps inspire other companies to follow suit.

That said, the fundamental thing I would really like to see is a genuine change in attitude – so that people embrace it because they think it’s the right thing to do, rather than because women are standing up and saying they have to. The thing I find the most depressing every day is that you still meet people who think that gender, and even more broader, equality and inclusion isn’t something they need to be thinking about – and a positive thing.

Follow us on Instagram to see more of our International Women's Day portraits and let us know which amazing women you're celebrating this week.

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