Times have changed but there is still a long way to go, say county’s top businesswomen

Sarah Howard, chair of the British Chambers of Commerce and director of software firm Sarand

Sarah Howard, chair of the British Chambers of Commerce, believes that Suffolk is making great strides by having women in key leadership roles - Credit: The Design Office

Things have changed a lot for ambitious women, says national business leader Sarah Howard.

But the Suffolk business owner and chair of the British Chambers of Commerce believes language can still be key - and this is one of the areas she is tackling in her national role. 

She would like International Women’s Day – on Tuesday, March 8 – to become obsolete because of the advances made to close the gender gap. But we’re not there yet, she says.

“At its very, very basic level I used to be called bossy. I refuse to be called bossy – I would call myself assertive,” she says. “A man would be called assertive.”

When Ms Howard’s daughter began her career as an engineer, the man-sized safety jackets would hang absurdly from her, she says. Today, they fit – and there are safety jackets for pregnant women on her sites too.

It’s small advances like these that begin to make women feel at home in their workplace, she argues.

“We still need to work at it and we still have a long way to go,” she says. “Unfortunately it (International Women’s Day) is not yet obsolete. One day it will be.”

Most Read

A past president of Suffolk Chamber and director of director of Sarand Business Software near Haverhill, Ms Howard wants the word “chairman” consigned to the dustbin as a default term.

British Chambers has joined forces with Make UK, The Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry in calling for the neutral term “chair” to be adopted by organisations such as Companies House, where “chairman” is still the default term in model articles for companies.

It’s a small battle - and has prompted pushback, she says, but it’s just about making people realise those roles are for everyone. They are not demanding that companies change their articles – it’s up to them, she insists. 

The FTSE Women Leaders Review 2022 shows just 8% of FTSE 100 chief executives are women and only 13.7% of executive directorships – while research from the World Bank suggests a direct link between the use of gendered language and differing employment rates between men and women, she says.

“This isn’t about being precious. Quite often a thing that will hold a woman back is confidence. There’s this old adage that if a man fulfils 60% of the job description he’ll go for it but a woman will want to fulfil 100%,” says Ms Howard.

“It’s a small but very significant alteration that will help break down subconscious bias and send a clear message to future generations that they have an equal role to play in running businesses whatever their gender identity.”

Suffolk, she believes, is making strides in bridging the gender divide in top roles. There are women MPs and the chief executive of Suffolk County Council is female. “I was president of the chamber and I wasn’t the first – there have been several,” she says. “There are women in very visible roles in Suffolk so we need to use these and use our voice.”

She is keen to see more women sitting on boards as non-executive directors. Among her own roles are independent chair of the West Suffolk Alliance which brings together services across West Suffolk, non-executive director of developer Jaynic, chair of not-for-profit leisure trust Abbeycroft Leisure and governor of West Suffolk College.

“The only way to get there is to keep on doing what we are doing. We need to normalise being in these roles,” she says. “Having a balanced board is good for a company.” 

Bridget McIntyre, chairman of Notcutts

Bridget McIntyre, chairman of Notcutts and the founder of Dream On, a charity which helps women to achieve their aspirations - Credit: Notcutts

Business high-flier Bridget McIntyre, founder of a Suffolk charity aimed at boosting women’s confidence, agrees there is still a long way to go for women. 

“We still need to do more to build self-belief and confidence for women to take opportunities and use their amazing talents,” she says. 

Ms McIntyre – founder of Eye-based charity Dream On, coaching business Alitus and the Blossom Charity which helps women, men and teens to build their confidence – agrees. Before changing tack in 2010 to focus on developing women and encouraging diversity at work, she was a top finance boss. As UK chief executive for insurance group Royal Sun Alliance (RSA) she was one of a tiny group of only 16 women to make it to FTSE 100 executive director.

She is now a non-executive director at Southwold pubs and brewery group Adnams, and chairman of Woodbridge-based garden centre chain Notcutts.

“I remain convinced diverse organisations are more creative and better places to work. My aim is to continue to support this through various roles I do,” she says.

“Following my year as High Sheriff , where I met with many of the leaders in Suffolk we set up the Alitus Executive Programme. I saw the need to support our leaders and to provide an environment where a strong group of leaders could work and learn from each other. It supports 14 senior leaders in Suffolk from health, education, justice, charities, public and private sectors.” 

Monthly retreats at Frithy Woods Lawshall combined with one-to-one coaching are making big difference, she believes. 

And makeover days for deserving women at Dream On were also having an impact on confidence and recovery, she says.

Vanessa Penn, founder of Penn Commercial

Vanessa Penn, founder of Penn Commercial believes there has been a sea-change in attitudes towards women - Credit: Penn Commercial

Businesswomen are hopeful. Ipswich-based commercial property agent Vanessa Penn, founder of Penn Commercial, believes there has been a fundamental change in attitudes towards women over recent years. 

“It seems that the old cycle has finally been altered and we really have a sea change from my grandmother’s time, when business – or, indeed, any – opportunities for women outside the home were scarce,” she says.

“Now, we are used to seeing women in many different owner-manager businesses, corporates, political and key leadership roles. While we all have our strengths in business, women seem to be better at the softer skills and understand that different personalities need different types of management, support and motivation, which generally gets the best out of a team.

“Running my own business has been challenging, but ultimately, I am in control of my own destiny and not hampered by corporate structures, which are sometimes slow to change and often don’t allow for quick decisions to be made.”