I always thought reviewing would take me to some interesting places and St Andrews has left me far from disappointed, offering everything from drag shows to wine fairs. And once again, sitting at the Lumsden Winning Women Conference in Parliament hall, I found myself a veteran of all boys’ school, suddenly in a slightly different environment.
Or at least so I might have thought, for in actuality very little was different from a St Andrews event with a ratio of fifty/fifty. The bar was swamped as crowds attempted to monopolise the free wine, conversation echoed throughout the hall. It’s always an interesting moment when you learn something from simply walking into the room. And walking into the conference had proven to me instantly how the environment was one of constructive thought that superseded any worries I had of being an invader so close to where I live. With this I entered the networking phase where, despite early reluctance to approach some of the speakers, the social lubrication of a few glasses of vino served to send the keen and shy alike into the fray. I had the privilege of talking to all the speakers, albeit briefly, about careers in their respective industries. Particularly interesting were the points raised by Dianne Ledingham, a Director at Bain and Company Inc, about how challenges for women in the workplace is often more a case of evolution than solution.
Networking completed the speakers took their positions and an eager audience sat down to receive them. What followed held a key hallmark of a successful conference. Without collusion the speakers’ speeches all linked into each other, filling holes others had left without any attempts at one-upmanship. Furthermore, despite the later Q&A showing how they had nearly all suffered some form of harassment in the workplace, none of the speeches targeted men or attempted to establish them as an issue for successful women. The narrative was focussed on success, and built on positives they had experienced, whether it was the benefit of working in different sizes of business, or discussion of confidence issues. All the discussion was set against the background of the Charity the event was raising for, Fife Women’s Aid, who focus on supporting women, young people, and children experiencing domestic abuse.
Valarie Bannert-Thurner, Global Head of Risk & Surveillance Solutions at NASDAQ, discussed how much she had learned from working on a management team in Santa Barbara and championed respect at all levels of a corporation. Her comment to me at the end, that it was ‘nice to see we can make a little bit of difference’, epitomises the humility with which all the speakers approached the event. Following on was Hilde Hukkelberg, Director of the UK office of Innovation Norway. Her discussion of a vast environmentally friendly computing complex inside a redundant mine was a perfect example of the original thought required to succeed in a modern business. Cat Maclean, a partner at MBM Commercial LLP, followed by describing the level of commitment required to excel in corporate law. As the only solicitor to have won “Solicitor of the Year” at the Scottish Law awards, her advice was perfectly poised and a goldmine for aspiring lawyers. Moreover, her admission that she didn’t know what she wanted to do for many years provided hope for those of us who are still mumbling the word ‘internship’ while swapping dream job daily. Dianne Ledingham introduced a different aspect to proceedings, providing a humorous and open style while directly stating first her own experiences, and then the lessons that she wished she had known starting out.
As the conference ran through the speakers some in the audience raised concerns about the lack of range in the careers and degrees the speakers had, which showed during the speeches. Additionally, the lack of a break left some fumbling for their phones. What I cannot deny however was the quality of the presentations and the insight gained into the life of a successful woman in business.
The Q&A, which started a short break after the speeches, served to expand the debate and was well led by the conference host. Questions ranged from co-workers to how to thrive in competitive environments, and were answered brilliantly with a range of answers. Throughout the Q&A, despite being pointed out as the only man in the room, I still felt as though I was part of the experience. In fact, one of the few things that was regrettable about the conference was the lack of male representation, something that Lumsden may choose to try and build on in future years. Afterwards speaker Cat Maclean summed up the atmosphere well, saying how ‘it was lovely to have so many infused women all gathered together’.
I walked out of the conference another half hour later, having stayed to discuss the talks with some of the audience. Unlike many other speaking events I found many remained after the conference had concluded, asking questions and taking pleasure in what they had experience. It is true that Lumsden has things to build on but, speaking from experience, I can honestly say that any St Andrews student, be they male or female, can benefit from hearing what it takes to be a Winning Woman.