The onward drive for gender equity

Photo by Tobias Bjørkli from Pexels

By Alison Maitland

As this is the last column I’ll write for the IWE community, I want first to thank and pay a personal tribute to Peta Payne as she steps down.

Those who know the driving force behind IWE (International Women of Excellence) will know how modest she is, never seeking the limelight. They will also know her persuasive power, her ability to harness different people’s strengths for a common purpose, and her determination to support women’s career growth so that businesses and societies flourish by using the best of all the talent.

One of the privileges of writing columns for IWE over the past 15 years has been working with Peta and having many conversations about our shared passion for the cause of gender equity. I’ve even managed to wangle a few nuggets about her ground-breaking career out of her.

When she began work at the Bank of England in the 1960s, Peta was a first, joining the ‘class staff’ previously reserved for men. She was paid the same as her male peers and thought that women had ‘made it’.

Some years later, when she started running an awards scheme under the aegis of the European Union of Women, she realised that there was still a long way to go. “All the women were the first women to have done this or that, and I thought it was ridiculous that it was taking so long for women to break through,” she said.

Knowing how useful their experience would be for other women, she asked them if they would speak at workshops. The idea for IWE was born and it launched in 2005. I attended and wrote for the Financial Times about the first workshop in London, held at the then Cass Business School, in 2006. There were equal numbers of women and men there. “Unless we take the men with us, nothing’s going to change,” Peta said. How right she was.

She was also right about the importance of having a supportive partner. Her husband Martin provided essential logistical help at the workshops which took place all over Europe, and on one memorable occasion drove them all the way from England to Cologne when a volcanic eruption in Iceland stopped air traffic.

I enjoyed speaking and facilitating at some of these workshops in Germany, Spain, Denmark and the UK, meeting the early and mid-career women who took part, and collaborating with facilitators Jeanette Cowley, Alyse Ashton, Liz Coffey and Jacey Graham among others.

Peta’s support for other women’s progress is unshakeable, in public but also in private. The many women leaders who have shared their stories in the monthly newsletter interviews will know this well, as will all those who’ve worked with her.

She has consistently welcomed my ideas for columns and appreciated what I’ve produced. She offered great support on the publication of books I’ve co-authored, holding events where possible and assembling sizeable audiences to hear the messages of ‘Why Women Mean Business’ and ‘Future Work’.

This final column is my 138th for IWE. End to end, they would make a very long book indeed! I’ve covered gender equity and leadership from many angles – from the positive results achieved by mixed gender teams through to counteracting bias, pay gaps, quotas, flexible working, and what men can do to advance equity, as well as lighter topics like humour at work and travel wardrobe tips by and for women.

Some of the more intriguing headlines have included:

“Ambition: is it a male thing?”

“The new Madonna army” (a piece about the ‘rise’ of women over 50)

“High heels at work – obligation or choice?”

“We need to ‘fix’ the men – says male CEO”


“Are gender differences an invention?”

I’ve continued to learn a lot through my research and writing, for example about the now much discussed issue of ‘intersectionality’ – the intersecting disadvantages and discrimination that many people face based on a combination of their gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, (dis)ability or other aspects of their identity.

There have been momentous changes over this time, notably that:

  • Gender equity has moved from the margins to the mainstream of business
  • Racial equity, and systemic inequity, are at last on the business agenda
  • The dam preventing many employees from working more flexibly finally broke as Covid-19 forced organisations to trust people to work from home
  • Inclusiveness is now recognised as a desirable leadership skill to make the most of the benefits of diversity
  • There is emerging understanding that including the broad mix of people and perspectives is necessary if we are to save and sustain our damaged planet

I’m conscious, though, that I write this from the perspective of a white westerner living in a democratic society. For International Women’s Day in March 2018, I wrote a column called ‘Don’t take women’s rights for granted.’ Today, the situation in Afghanistan tragically highlights how millions of women and girls in the world remain oppressed, trapped, and at risk of having their human rights arbitrarily taken away.

The repercussions are global. And we won’t be able to claim full success for women’s economic and social progress until every woman is able to be who she wants to be and achieve her true potential.

I prefer to keep optimistic even in the gloomiest times, partly because progress is not linear, but also because we must never give up. Taking inspiration from the struggles and achievements of those ahead, including leaders like Peta, it’s the responsibility of each new generation to keep hoping, fighting and leading the way.

This column was first published by IWE on 19 September 2021.

© Alison Maitland 2021, all rights reserved.

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