CEO Letter | Accidental ambitions: Women, Power and Sarah Sands

You’ve probably heard that well-worn statistic that suggests men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report and has been quoted in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in, in The Confidence Code and in countless features about why women still struggle to break through to the top jobs, yet with a little digging one discovers that the 100% vs 60% figure is built on anecdotal evidence, rather than on robust statistical analysis.

Regardless of how shaky the dataset, for most women the principle still rings true – when clambering up the rungs of the career ladder, it seems it is often confidence, rather than a lack of ambition, that holds us back. I hold my hand up and say that I’ve been there too: when I first saw the job description for Chief Executive of Walpole I told my husband I couldn’t possibly apply because it was full of things I’d never done before, and I didn’t think I had the requisite experience. Fortunately for me, my husband read the spec rather differently and patiently coached me to see how much of it I could do, rather than what I thought I couldn’t. Even more fortunately, Michael Ward, Walpole’s Chairman, looks for aptitude and skill rather than experience when recruiting and, believing in my potential, gave me the job. Fifteen months into the role, I hope I have proven his faith in me well-founded.

As I was preparing to talk to Sarah Sands, Walpole’s guest at Wednesday’s Women’s Luxury Network lunch, I reminded myself how perilously close I had come to shying away from the job that has been the making of me, and wondered if some of the limitations women encounter en route to the top table are self-imposed ones, rather than those imposed by a workplace where even in British luxury 69% of CEO’s are male. As Editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sands is arguably the most powerful person in news media. Not only is she the first editor of the show to come from outside the BBC and only the second woman editor in its 60 year history, she was ‘the standout candidate of the shortlist’, despite not having any of the ‘extensive experience of broadcast journalism’ or ‘sound appreciation of studio production techniques’ called for in the job spec. So much for the 60/100 rule there. But as Sands told Walpole, the Today programme is not unlike a newspaper – you’re aiming for “something that feels complete and has a guiding intelligence and a personality and has a good mix… as you do as a newspaper editor”.

It’s as a newspaper editor she won her spurs – not least as one of the vanishingly rare women in a male-dominated world – as deputy editor of The Telegraph, Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and latterly as the Editor of the Evening Standard (again, only the second woman at the helm in 190 years). Yet despite her exceptional achievements, Sands describes herself as only accidentally ambitious: rather than having some grand plan, she claims that circumstances and adversity have been the spur to her success, firstly when needing to provide for her son after an early marriage ended in divorce and later when she was fired from the Sunday Telegraph. The latter she found less of a discouraging blow than an impetus to do better and come back fighting – “you’re always a journalist,” she says, “you see everything as a story and the story isn’t about getting the sack but about ‘What’s next?’”. The poster girl for getting on with it and keeping going, she understands too that sometimes one doesn’t only see the story, one becomes the story. A few months into the job, the BBC pay gap row broke, with the disparity between male and female presenters of the Today programme at its heart (Sands wryly points out that she’s one of the few people to negotiate a radical pay cut when moving to Today – more than halving her Evening Standard salary – “sometimes your motivations aren’t about the money, certainly not in this case – it’s about the honour”), and her introduction of a piece on London Fashion Week, including a rare interview with Christopher Bailey in which he talked of the impact of Brexit on a sector that’s worth £28 billion to the UK economy (nearly as much as British luxury), led to accusations that her editorial stance was undermining Today’s gravitas. Interestingly, none of the criticisms come from listeners, who have welcomed the leavening of Today’s unremitting love-in with Westminster with compelling coverage of business and the arts. In the context of gender pay gap, ‘#MeToo’, of Trump, Brexit and of the rise of populism, I ask her, are we living through a time in which all traditional power structures, good and bad, are being challenged? Sands thinks for a moment before saying that it’s true that everything seems to be changing very rapidly, that we live in interesting, not to say uncertain, times but that perhaps what stays constant is the role of the Today programme: “it’s purpose has always been to hold power to account. That’s its job.”

As I walk back to the Walpole office after the lunch, I pass the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, unveiled at the end of last month by Theresa May. Instrumental in getting the vote for (some) women with the 1918 Representation of the People Act, Millicent Fawcett began a process that has seen enormous change in women’s lives over the last century. I think of all the pioneering women in business – not least in British luxury where there are now so many female founders of global brands – all of whom contribute to the drive towards equality in the workplace. I think of some of the findings from Walpole’s Luxury in the Workplace study, which shows there’s a resounding commitment in our sector to levelling the playing field, and where the vast majority of employees say ‘men and women are treated equally in my organisation’*, whilst acknowledging there’s still a lot of work to be done in channelling the pipeline of female talent to the c-suite and beyond.  The purpose of Walpole’s women’s luxury network is to shine a light on a desire to increase the pace of change for women in luxury. Each one of us – men and women alike – can do our bit. We can mentor, encourage, create community, call out examples of excellence, highlight talent coming through and share the stories of women like Sarah Sands who do what they do spectacularly well.

Of course, policies, mentoring and robust analysis of gender pay disparity will only get us part of the way there. We also have to help ourselves. There are very few boards and bosses who don’t want a more diverse executive: the message that it’s good for business has very much rung home. But if we don’t make a conscious effort to squash those insidious inner voices which tell us we can’t, and replace it with ‘yes I blooming well can’, then we won’t reach for the opportunities when they present themselves. Let’s all give the lie to the 60%/100% statistic, and be more like Sarah Sands, who wanted the top job and got it because she was the ‘outstanding candidate, head and shoulders above the rest’, despite not having the apparently requisite broadcast experience. If that’s ‘accidentally ambitious’ let’s have more of it. And if anyone is feeling a little bit afraid of reaching for the Next Big Thing, think of Millicent Fawcett who said ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’.

[*Walpole luxury in the workplace survey, spring 2018. 68% of respondents agree that men and women are treated equally in my organisation]

About the Women in Luxury lunch
The 2018 Women in Luxury lunch was held in the splendid Front Parlour and Eating Room of Home House on Wednesday 15th May. During the event, guests were gifted a piece of jewellery from Atelier Swarovski, truffles from the Highland Chocolatier, and a day pass to Home House. We also raised £1,000 for the Felix Project through a raffle of incredible prizes, donated by Walpole member companies.

Bottle of Award-winning Glenmorangie Signet
Home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Experience
Charbonnel et Walker Hamper
Maison Assouline’s The Queen’s People signed by the Photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas
Jo Malone London Shoebox
Fortnum & Mason Bespoke Hamper
Ettinger Purse
Stephen Einhorn Dachshund Necklace
House of Hackney Lamp
Tour of Harrods’ Wellness Clinic and a cryotherapy treatment
DAKS handbag
Atelier Swarowski Kalix Core Collection Jewellery Set

A huge thank you to Home House, The Real Flower Company, Chapel Down, Laurent-Perrier, Iain Burnett the Highland Chocolatier, Charbonnel et Walker, Harrods, DAKS, House of Hackney, Ettinger, Maison Assouline, Jo Malone London, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Fortnum & Mason, Stephen Einhorn, Glenmorangie, Swarovski and Sarah Sands.

About the Felix Project
In our capital city, thousands of children go to school hungry each morning. Young mothers skip meals to feed their families. Elderly people are malnourished and those with a mental illness are often ignored. The Felix Project collects fresh, nutritious food that cannot be sold. We deliver this surplus food to charities so they can provide healthy meals and help the most vulnerable in our society.