International Women’s Day: How do working women strike the perfect work-life balance? And will we ever smash the glass ceiling?

Karen Hester, Adnams

Karen Hester, Adnams - Credit: Archant

On International Women’s Day, Ellen Widdup speaks to six of East Anglia’s most successful businesswomen to explore whether it really is possible to be successful in the workplace and in the home.

Dayle Bayliss

Dayle Bayliss - Credit: Archant

Women now make up more of the UK’s workforce than ever before: 46% is now female – the largest percentage since records began ? and new statistics from the Federation of Small Businesses show that female entrepreneurs are leading the way over their male counterparts, setting up the majority of high street companies in the past two years.

Caroline Farren-Hines

Caroline Farren-Hines - Credit: Archant

So, are women in business more empowered than ever before, or is the shocking shortage of females heading blue chip FTSE 100 firms a sign that they still have a mountain to climb?

Cara Miller

Cara Miller - Credit: Archant

Today, International Women’s Day, we ask some of East Anglia’s most successful female business leaders for their thoughts on how far we have come, how easy it is to strike a work/life balance and whether or not the glass ceiling will ever be smashed.

Deborah Watson

Deborah Watson - Credit: Archant

Deborah Cadman

Deborah Cadman - Credit: Archant

Karen Hester, Operations Director at Adnams, Southwold

When she signed up to join the Army at 16, Karen Hester was quite certain that neither her age – nor her sex – was going to hold her back. But after being promoted to Corporal within 10 months she fell pregnant and was given a brutal ultimatum – have an abortion or leave. It was the first time in her career that she encountered sex discrimination and she decided then and there that she could not stay in a job where she was at a disadvantage because of her gender. She left, had her baby and returned to her family home in Suffolk to work as a cleaner for Adnams.

Thirty years and a number of promotions later, she is now the Operations Director at Adnams overseeing 400 members of staff.

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She said: “The divide between men and women in the workplace has diminished significantly since my career began.

“I was a member of the armed forces at a time when women were expected to leave if they fell pregnant so I have been at the very worst end of gender discrimination and am pleased to say that today I am treated equally in what is often described as a male-dominated industry.”

Karen believes having children should never stop a woman achieving a satisfying career.

She said: “As a woman who has been a single parent and climbed the career ladder at the same time as studying for qualifications, I’m well aware that us mums are often our own hardest critic. We live by our conscience and allow it to “tell ourselves off”.

“I understand that some woman feel punished for wanting to be a good mum and have a fulfilling career, but the reality is that the most important tool to learn is time management. “Set realistic goals, don’t think you have to be superwoman and just try your best.”

Dayle Bayliss, of Dayle Bayliss Design and Construction Consultants, Ipswich

Dayle is a former winner of Suffolk Young Businessperson of the Year and one of Suffolk’s Future 50.

She started her company more than two years ago and now employs three staff. She has won a host of clients and expanded despite the recession.

Her industry is typically male-dominated and she often gets quizzed on how she copes with this.

She says: “The reality is that this isn’t a man’s world. It’s an equal world where, if you work hard and deliver great projects, your sex is irrelevant.

“Once you work in construction, very few people leave because it’s a career that offers great rewards and every day there are different challenges and new things to learn.

“The greatest limit to the career is that most females don’t know the opportunities available.

“I set up my own practice at the age of 31 and have seen it blossom.

“It hasn’t always been easy but the rewards include seeing a client’s dreams realised.

“It is a shame that more women don’t explore all the opportunities that are available in this field.”

Caroline Farren-Hines, HR manager, RehabWorks Ltd, Bury St Edmunds

Caroline says: “When it comes to women in the workplace, I am one of the luckiest women I know.”

Caroline is part of the senior management team at one of the UK’s leading providers of injury management and rehabilitation services for employers, insurers and government.

“RehabWorks really sees the benefit of having women in senior positions and appreciates that women can bring as much to the table as men and, on some occasions, more,” she says.

“I do know people who work in senior positions in other companies and they find it a struggle to be taken as seriously as their male colleagues. They feel as if they have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts, to almost justify being a woman in their position.

“I think one of the key areas where companies limit themselves and the talent that they employ is when they expect people to fit their life around the business, rather than being flexible enough so that people (both women and men) can get the right work/life balance.

“With the upcoming flexible parental leave (where parents will be able to choose how they share the care of the child for the first year), and a bigger emphasis on flexible working and work/life balance, companies who do limit women in senior positions will find themselves on the back foot, both operationally and also in attracting and retaining the right person for the job.”

Cara Miller runs Miller Wash Associates, a limited liability partnership with offices in Basepoint Business Centre, Ipswich

Last year Cara was crowned Suffolk’s Young Businessperson of the Year.

She says: “Traditionally there haven’t been many women in senior positions within the accountancy industry and, going back some 20 or 30 years, the few women who did make it must have fought tooth and nail to be taken seriously.

“In the ’80s, female accountants were widely accepted in book-keeping positions but as partners in accountancy firms, giving business advice to company directors and business owners? Not likely.

“Today it is less difficult for women in the sector and that is thanks to the strength and ambition of our mothers’ generation who fought to be taken seriously, who fought for equality.

“I am grateful to that generation, who have made it much easier for me to be where I am today, and I will keep pushing for equality for their sake, my sake and the sake of the next generation of women.”

Deborah Cadman, chief executive of Suffolk County Council, was awarded an OBE in 2006 for her services to local government

A mother-of-two, she has worked for councils in Newham, Birmingham and Redcar, and boasts a first degree in politics and two master’s degrees in economics and management. She was then made chief executive of the East of England Development Agency where, in 2011, she supported the creation of 8,800 jobs and 2,800 new businesses in the east.

She says: “As a woman who has achieved the position of chief executive in a large organisation I know from experience how things have changed. I also know how difficult things can sometimes be.

“There has been an improvement in gender diversity since I began my career almost 30 years ago but there is much more to be done.

“Leading a large, complex organisation can be tough, but you need to have passion and vision, and also have humility. You often see leaders seduced by power.

“My piece of business advice is: remember to listen, because you don’t know it all.”

Deborah Watson, director of PR firm Lexia, Woodbridge,

Deborah worked as a journalist before founding an award-winning communications consultancy.

She says: “In recent years I’ve seen a notable difference in the number of women leading companies, establishing their own, or emerging in industries once dominated by men.

“I don’t sit comfortably with the idea that more women should be granted board-level roles merely to make up the numbers and make the stats look good. Instead, I believe women today get where they get on merit.

“In my mid-30s, I’m also increasingly finding a change in how my generation has perceived its role and what we women of 2014 should or shouldn’t be expected to achieve, either personally or professionally.

“I have friends who are making clear decisions not to have children, to remain unmarried, or to keep their own name on exchanging wedding vows, for example. These things are conscious choices, and yet at odds with what we might have seen a generation ago.

“I think this is probably because choices are greater and the society-level assumptions altered from what they once were. Perhaps that’s just another reason why it’s up to the likes of myself, in the world of communications, to ensure the stories we relay are ones which reflect a true picture of women today – be that of a businesswoman, a full-time mum, or a very impressive juggler of many hats.”

How do you strike the perfect work/life balance? Send us an email and share your experience of the workplace with our readers.