From the classroom to the boardroom

Illustration: Genevieve Borrowdale-Cox
Illustration: Genevieve Borrowdale-Cox
Illustration: Genevieve Borrowdale-Cox

Several facts link the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan UK, the CEO of clothing company Comptoir des Cotonniers and the entrepreneur who created the coconut water company Just Picked CoCo: they are all women who have risen to the top of their industries and they are all a part of one St Andrews society’s efforts to support females in business.

The management society, which works to expose students to the corporate world, is hosting its Third Annual Women in Business Forum on 6 October at Hotel du Vin. Five female speakers who work in industries which vary from fashion to banking will speak about how they reached the positions they hold today, with an overall goal of “empowering women to progress from the classroom to the boardroom,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

In its inaugural year, the forum featured six speakers from companies such as Topshop and HSBC. Tessa Hartmann, founder of the Scottish Fashion Awards, spoke the year after that.

Lindsay Hamel, president of the management society, was initially unsure whether she would hold the forum during her tenure. She told The Saint: “I didn’t think there should be a difference between men and women in business anymore, but then when I was applying for jobs and speaking to women, they told me, ‘no, this is a real issue that needs to be addressed.’”

Ms Hamel also noted that the topic of women in business is highly relevant today, with banks and consulting firms holding events similar to the society’s own forum. Within the next decade, however, she hopes the term will be phased out due to improved gender equality. In order to plan the event, Natalie Biringer, convener of the forum sub-committee, worked with Ms Hamel to contact speakers. The management society had hoped to hold the forum in April, but a string of busy potential speakers pushed planning forward.

“We cold-emailed a bunch of women [whom] we found online,” Ms Biringer said. “Most of them were very receptive and obviously only some of them could make the dates, so we’re just very lucky. Women are so keen to tell their stories and inspire students and they love to visit this university.”

By the start of the academic year, five speakers were booked for the forum: Andrea Sullivan, head of corporate responsibility, EMEA, at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Louise Beveridge, senior vice-president of communications at Kering; Louise Court, head of editorial strategy and content at Hearst UK and former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan UK; Nancy Pedot, CEO of Comptoir Des Cotonniers; Alexis Versandi, St Andrews alumna and founder of Just Picked CoCo Water.

One of the speakers Ms Biringer is most interested in hearing from is Ms Sullivan. “I find it interesting how her job intersects with a finance-oriented institution and she has to juggle that money-focused aspect of the company [while] she’s trying to bring in a different part [by] making everyone socially responsible,” she said.

Ms Biringer also hopes that having an alumna, Ms Versandi, as a speaker will prompt students attending the forum to think, “I’m a student here as well. What can I do to follow the same trajectory as that person?” Ms Hamel voiced similar thoughts, saying that the goal of this and other management society events is to inspire students to take risks without selling themselves short. “We have some of the most innovative, enterprising students in the world,” she said.

In an interview with The Guardian, panelist Louise Court echoed this sentiment whilst also touching on the need for feminism in the workplace. “I still think there are some young women who don’t particularly like the word ‘feminism.’ They obviously believe they should have equal pay and the same freedoms as a man,”she said. “A lot of young women were brought up with the whole thing – you’re the girls who have it all, if you want that job you can have it. A lot of those opportunities were fought for by feminists in the first place. They’ve worked hard at school and university, done all the things they were meant to do and the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. I think young women are thinking about feminism again.”

During the forum, speakers will participate in a panel discussion centred on questions like how they landed in their current positions and what advice they would offer regarding internships and entering the workforce. Following the pre-set list of questions, audience members will be invited to participate in a question and answer session with the panellists and a networking wine reception. “We want students to be able to actually engage with the speakers because that’s where you get the most benefit,” Ms Biringer said.

Although female students are the event’s target demographic, men are encouraged to attend too. “It’s not just about how did you as a woman make it here,” Ms Biringer explained. “It’s [about] how did you as someone involved in the banking industry or the journalism industry [make it here]. We don’t just want to ask them what they do in their current roles. We want to ask them what was their first job [and] what advice would you have for your first job, so it’s really applicable to all students.”

At St Andrews, resources for female students interested in business include the management society and the careers centre. Ms Hamel noted that she would like to see more business societies and incubators here. “More career resources are always welcome,” she said. In addition to corporate-focused resources, Ms Hamel cited the University’s many societies as helpful preparation, even those not focused on business. “I think St Andrews is unparalleled in the amount of extracurriculars [offered],” she said. “It’s good practice for the real world [in terms of] juggling obligations.”

Paul Brown, director of the careers centre, told The Saint that in most areas of business, he would offer the same advice to female and male students: be sure where it is you want to go and research your employer and role in the company thoroughly. Mr Brown also suggested that women research the culture and working practices of the firm they’re joining in case they eventually want to have more flexible hours.

“It may be these things won’t affect them much for two to three years, [but] then they need to switch firms,” he added. “Part of their thinking is, ‘I want to be here for the long haul.’ [They] definitely need to be thinking about these wider issues, whether they’ll want to remain in that environment.”

In a survey of students graduating from St Andrews in the 2013/2014 academic year, the careers centre found that 39.4 per cent of women graduates were pursuing full-time work as opposed to 40.8 per cent of men. 37 per cent of women were entering full-time study, versus 39.3 per cent of men, and 2.8 per cent of women were unemployed, as opposed to 5 per cent of men.

The careers centre also recorded 548 graduates’ starting income. The average salary for those taking on professional roles in the UK was £27,541 for men and £24,085 for women.

On a national scale, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) Annual Survey found that the percentage of female graduates joining AGR programmes averaged 41.6 per cent despite the fact that women make up 58.7 per cent of total graduates.

“Women are going into jobs which are financially less rewarding,” Mr Brown said, “but they’re also much less inclined to be unemployed.” Looking at overall trends in employment however, Mr Brown thinks women face greater difficulty in career progression than in starting their career. “Representation in more senior roles is very uneven,” he said.

Tickets for the Third Annual Women in Business Forum are available online via the event’s Facebook page. The cost is £5 for members and £7 for non-members. Tickets can also be purchased in person on 5 October outside the Vic. 


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