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International Women's Day 2023

If we want more female CEOs, we need women in the office – not working from home

Spaces that were previously the preserve of men are being transformed by progressive women, writes Nationwide Building Society CEO Debbie Crosbie

Tuesday 07 March 2023 21:30 GMT
In my early career I saw successful women navigate through prejudice and bias to the very top of organisations
In my early career I saw successful women navigate through prejudice and bias to the very top of organisations (PA Media)

We’re almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and at last women are breaking barriers in business and changing history.

Female CEOs are still just a fraction of the leaders in the largest companies, but with almost 40% of UK FTSE 100 board positions now held by women, we can make sure that percentage increases.

Spaces that were previously the preserve of men are being transformed by progressive women in high political office. It’s frustrating that women leaders are held to different standards than men, but societies around the world are better for the breakthrough. Although countries led by women are still the minority, they are no longer the exception.

We should be in a strong position to inspire the next generation of female leaders. However, our post-pandemic ways of working may deny many women the opportunities that were so important to me in my early career.

In the early head-spinning weeks of Covid lockdown, we were quick to champion the benefits of home working. So many ditched the commute and extolled the virtue of flexibility and being able to balance home and work life more seamlessly.

It was only in the months that followed, that people realised the downside of home working wasn’t benefitting everyone equally. Often, responsibility for homeschooling landed only on women, who found that they now had to juggle day-long caring responsibilities with constant Zoom invites.

I talked to many women who found homeschooling and trying to maintain the same work pace from the kitchen table simply overwhelming. Several women in Nationwide speak with me now about how energised they feel once they are back in a routine with time in the office to focus uninterrupted on their role and career development. You simply don’t get the same fun and support on a Teams call that you do around the water cooler.

But we’re not making this easy. If you leave the choice of where and when everyone works entirely at the discretion of individual employees, you run the risk of a free-for-all that benefits no one. People who prioritise getting back in the office only to find that most others are still on-screen at home don’t benefit from that powerful person-to-person engagement.

At Nationwide we’re struggling to find the right balance between returning to the workplace and remaining at home.

In my early career, being in, around, and amongst great leaders was essential. I saw successful women navigate through prejudice and bias to the top of organisations. I learned networking skills, how to develop and maintain a personal brand, and I developed an internal resilience that has stood me in great stead to this very day.

What’s more, others saw me and recognised my potential. When I needed a shorter week after my daughter was born, the organisation was willing to flex its HR policies so that I only needed to work three days a week. Crucially, those days were spent in the office.

Nationwide employs more than 18,000 people, 60% are women. We were firm at the outset of the pandemic that we would never return to wholesale office working. I’m now grappling with how firmly we need to encourage more people, particularly young people, and women, back into the workplace more often.

When people engage together in person, they connect, collaborate, and grow in confidence. It’s how we secure cultural change and create high-performing teams. It provides visibility and vital opportunities for informal coaching, mentoring, and career discussions.

I know that I wouldn’t be leading the world’s largest building society today if I had been denied these interventions early in my career.

Now, I feel that I owe it to the next generation of great women leaders to speak clearly about the benefits of being back in the workplace for more of their time.

Debbie Crosbie is a British banker and the first female chief executive officer of the Nationwide Building Society

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