Ruby McGregor-Smith hated the media frenzy that came with her appointment as the first-ever Asian female chief executive of a FTSE 250 company so much that she vowed never to do any of that “gender women’s stuff”.
Nor did the CEO of Mitie, the outsourcing group, like giving press interviews: “I hadn’t realised that there was anything special or different about my position – either being female or Asian. That I might be different was only highlighted to me by the press, and I really did not want to do anything surrounding the women’s issue. I never wanted to be distinguished by being a woman.”
Since then, Mrs McGregor-Smith, who is still only 51, has been honoured with numerous awards for both her gender and her Asian background, along with a CBE she picked up two years ago.
She was also persuaded to come out of the shadows and chair the Government-backed Women’s Business Council, set up to promote the female contribution to growth and remove any barriers to playing a full part in business.
What changed her mind? “Well, reluctantly I came to the view that every female has an obligation to help others, and I accepted that to some extent I was a role model. After a while, it occurred to me that I couldn’t be a senior female CEO at Mitie and not do something to help others.”
“I guess I also agreed to take the WBC chair to make a difference and ensure our children do not face the same barriers I faced. As a working mother with two children, I know the challenges faced in balancing a career and family.”
Well, she appears to have taken to her new ambassadorial role like a duck to water: the WBC’s one-year action report, launched earlier this summer, didn’t pull punches, arguing that women face obstacles at every stage of their careers – from school onwards and upwards. Another 2.4 million non-working women in the UK who say they want jobs could find them within five years, she says, if more companies adopted better flexible-working practices.
“Most businesses are in favour of flexible working but told us in our research for the report they need guidance to do so. We would like to see employers give employment contracts that reflect the job itself – rather than where and what is done – and avoiding such terms which can be misleading such as ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’.”
“We also need to do far more to encourage diversity; not just ethnic minorities but those with disabilities that can be overcome in the workplace. We had a wonderful young girl working here recently at Mitie with cerebral palsy. She was fantastic, and a great worker, but I had never met anyone like her before and it had never occurred to me before to even think about people who suffered disabilities like hers. It was an eye-opener and the workplace should be more open to people her.”
Getting better child-care and improving careers advice at school are among her top priorities. Indeed, she reckons families should be given tax relief for all child-care and wants to see a total overhaul of the careers service: “Girls outperform boys in education but they are not studying the subjects that can lead them to higher earnings later in life such as those that require maths, IT and science.”
Neither the careers advice service nor teachers know enough about the subjects needed for many new technology jobs so are unable to give the right advice, she says. “We need more employees and role models going into schools to tell students and teachers what is available in the jobs market – like the excellent Speakers for Schools service.”
Mrs McGregor-Smith nearly gave up her career when her two children were very young. “I found balancing both very tough. So when they were young I took a break and then went back to work part-time. But it was a really difficult time and it’s when I needed the most support, and self-confidence, to come back into the workplace.”
Encouraging women to the top of the business tree is still tough, she says. But quotas are the wrong way: “I’m dead against quotas as they are not meritocratic and they don’t solve the big issues which is the lack of women in the executive pipeline. We have a female finance director – but we chose her because she was the best. “
Born in Uttar Pradesh, India, Mrs McGregor-Smith moved to London aged two, when her mother joined her father. She studied economics at Kingston Polytechnic and then accountancy at BDO where she met her husband, Graham – also an accountant – before going to Serco in 1991. She stayed there for nine years in various financial and operational roles before joining Mitie in 2002 as group finance director. She was appointed CEO in 2007.
Since she became the boss of Mitie, the business has flourished: the most recent results show turnover of £2.1bn and pre-tax profit up 21 per cent at £113m. Shares have climbed over the last five years to 316p and the latest trading statement showed a raft of new contracts with Heathrow Airport, Virgin Money and Tesco to name a few clients for whom they outsource the 72,000 staff on their books. “There’s no conflict about what our staff feel: they work for both Mitie and our clients. What we do is take all the hard work away from a business and allow it to concentrate on what they do best. We can do the unsexy stuff.”
She also spends a lot of time making Mitie a livelier place: she set up Mitie Stars, a recognition programme where employees can win up to £15,000 for doing something special and there’s a Mitie Got Talent, its version of The X Factor.
Even though her husband now spends more time with their teenage children, she is still strict about not taking on too many work dinners or breakfast meetings.
“Hopefully, by the time they are looking for careers being a woman – or a member of any other group – in the workplace won’t be an issue.”
What do they hope to do? “I’m an accountant, my father was an accountant, my two sisters are accountants, their husbands are accountants, Graham is an accountant and so is his sister. They really don’t stand a chance, do they?”