Sarah Thewlis

Chair of REC and Managing Director of Thewlis Graham Associates.

Sarah Lewis, Chair of REC and Managing Director of Thewlis Graham Associates, provides her reflections on International women’s day and the world of work

March 7, 2022
Mar 8, 2022
International Women's Day

It’s over 40 years since I joined the world of work. I started as a Saturday girl in a local toy shop. Gender roles were clearly defined. Women worked and sold soft toys, dolls and games, and men worked with Hornby model trains, Scalextric and bikes.

After University I joined the Marks and Spencer graduate scheme. Once again gender roles were clearly defined. Women joined and trained to become HR professionals, and men went into the commercial stream ultimately to become store managers. Nothing was actually said to stop you from joining a different stream. But in my early years that simply didn’t happen. By the time I left, thirteen years later, it had started to change.

There are many reasons for that, but the main reason was that new roles were created and they didn’t easily fit into the two traditional categories. At the same time there was a gradual erosion of the concept of a Job for Life. Employers and employees realized that change was here to stay, and jobs would be constantly evolving, and being created, and disappearing. What’s happened to bus conductors, shorthand typists and comptometrists? What’s happened to local toy shops? The search for new roles and flexible talent was on.

In 1978 people began to talk about the glass ceiling. They loosely defined it as the “unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities.” I remember how in 1997 Marjorie Scardino became the first women to head a FTSE 100 company, when she took the top job at media company Pearson. I remember how Clara Furse became the first female chief executive of the London Stock Exchange four years later. But these were the exception rather than the rule – progress was glacial. In 2011 “Women on Boards”, the Government sponsored project led by Lord Davies, looked to increase the percentage of women directors. In 2015 he was able to report that:

“There are more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, with representation of women more than doubling since 2011 - now at 26.1% on FTSE 100 boards and 19.6% on FTSE 250 boards. We have also seen a dramatic reduction in the number of all-male boards. There were 152 in 2011. Today there are no all-male boards in the FTSE 100 and only 15 in the FTSE 250.”

Despite this, the latest report in 2021 noted that “whilst the position was improving with the number of women on FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 boards continues to rise (38% and 35%respectively), there remains considerable variance between companies, with the overall figures boosted by the efforts of several leading firms. Some 21% of FTSE 100 companies and 32% of FTSE 250 companies have yet to meet the Hampton Alexander target of 33% women on boards by 2020.”

The same report noted that there were only eight female CEOs in the FTSE 100 and no black CEOs or Chairs. There are clearly some cracks in the glass ceiling, but it seems to be still firmly in place. A clearer focus on inclusion and progression across businesses has come to the fore to tackle this in recent years – opening up the Boardroom to people of all backgrounds and orientations.

How can recruiters help? We can be a huge driver of the changes that need to happen.  I stood for Chair of the REC to improve the industry’s profile so that outsiders could recognise the significant role we play in the world of work and how we can support diversity and inclusion. This search for talent is where recruiters have an absolutely key role to play. Part of the progress made on “Women on Boards” and changing the status quo was through a positive coalition between search consultants and chairs of boards. Recruiters have a real opportunity to work with clients to persuade them to think more laterally about talent and be more flexible about how —and whom— to employ. REC research commissioned some research in 2021,and there were three relevant findings.

- The recruitment industry supports £86 billion in gross value added across the economy —the equivalent of 4.3% of GDP, about the same size as management and consulting, and larger than either accounting or legal.

- Someone finds a permanent role through a recruitment agency every 21 seconds.

- Two out of three (62%) businesses said that working with a recruitment agency had helped them increase the diversity of the candidates they considered. A further two out of three (63%) said that working with a recruitment agency had helped them increase the diversity of new recruits.

Here's a picture to leave you with (photo at the top of the page). The REC board met in person for the first time for two years last month —like so many of you, we’d been meeting virtually up until then. We posted a post meeting picture on social media and got a number of positive comments about how diverse the board was, and in particular how good it was to see so many women in contrast to 15 years ago.

My final thought on International Women’s Day is this. Recruiters are in a wonderful position to work with clients and make a change —to help them think more laterally about talent and be more flexible about terms and conditions and ways of working. The market at the moment is very tight. The recruiters and employers who will succeed will be those who take to heart what the pandemic has taught us about hybrid working. We all have complex lives. There’s a great opportunity for us to thrive and not just to survive in the workplace.


Sarah Thewlis Chair of the REC and Managing Director of Thewlis Graham Associates.

Thewlis Graham Associates are also celebrating IWD, you can find out how they are doing so by clicking here

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