Women in Business – An Interview with Cheshire and Warrington LEP Chair – Christine Gaskell

This week we are delighted to hear some great insights from an NWBLT partner and chair of the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, Christine Gaskell. Christine has had a fascinating career working in the automotive sector. In this interview it is clear that she has many lessons from working and succeeding in such a male dominated sector.

  1. This year is significant for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, with the centenary of the representation of the people act that gave women – although with restrictions – the right to vote. In your opinion how important is it for us to mark this event?

It’s incredibly important we need to be reminded of what those amazing women did in order to get us the vote and how important that was. It was a real game changer and a lot has happened since and we still have a long way to go but they certainly made the first really important step for us making sure that we actually had a voice. 

  1. Beyond merely celebrating and reflecting on this what tangible things do business leaders, policy makers and other influential people need to do to continue the further advancement towards equality?

I think there’s a lot we can still do and we are seeing it happen as we speak. The BBC have published the PWC report into gender pay equality, these things are now being talked about and actually being dealt with. For years we’ve talked about things and seen very little action, I think we’re now starting to see people doing things and responding rather than saying that’s just the way it is, there’s not much we can do about it.

  1. Do you think its quite interesting that its taken shocks and people hearing stories about horrific events such as the President’s Club, although they’re really awful, are these kind of things going to push us forward more and force us to fight particular battles that may have previously been hidden?

To actually get people’s attention it is always going to be the headline grabbing stories, but actually behind the scenes people have been chipping away at these things year on year. We mustn’t forget that that is what will really make the difference.

  1. You have worked for most of your career in the motor industry; do you think this sector still has cultural barriers that prevent women from wanting to start a career in this industry? If so would, what is the next step in tackling these problems?

The industry is now light years from where it was when I started; I was positively discouraged from going on the factory floor. This wasn’t the management exclusively; the unions didn’t want me there either. It was something that I just thought; I am not going to be beaten. I regularly now give talks to young women who are starting out, they are horrified when I tell them stories. But as I say to them, I’d like you to look at the scars on the top of my head from where I broke that glass ceiling for you. Because it was women like me who didn’t give up.

  1. So what’s the next step, is it just about talking to the new generation of women coming into the workforce now?

No, I think it starts much sooner than that. I actually think it’s got to start in schools. Young women have got to be encouraged to do apprenticeships, take STEM subjects – you just have to look at the statistics about the number of young women doing maths. I do think its about making sure at an early age that we are very clear that there are no professions that are solely for men, or for women, job opportunities are open to anyone and we should encourage people to do what they want to do.

  1. Why is it important that companies embrace diversity in their workforces?

First of all, it reflects the society we live in, by having a diverse workforce you are open to lots of different views and ideas. That is what business thrives on, The worst thing for any business is to only take a very narrow view.

  1. In terms of the motor industry, 50 years ago, the main client for firms like Bentley would have been older white men. Do you think the advancement of women economically has made companies such as Bentley need to include more women in the workforce so they can relate to these new markets and potential female customers?

Absolutely, I’ll give you a classic example when I was at Bentley we launched a continental convertible. We did an all female launch and said to the women we invited that they could bring a guest, if that guest happened to be male that was entirely up to them. We’d never done anything like that before, to say the invitation went to the female and she could bring a guest – because it is always the other way round. The other thing we need to remember is it might be the case – and it still is the case – that luxury motorcars still tend to be dominated by male customers. Look at the key influencers in those males’ lives – it tends to be women.

  1. Big businesses such as Bentley are able to offer schemes to encourage a more diverse workforce, working as an LEP what advice would you give to smaller businesses on how they can diversify their workforce when they are not able to offer large scale inclusivity programmes – due to lack of resources, be it time or money?

When it comes to recruiting your workforce you should be gender blind. This all starts in the way we educate young people. We need to open them up to the opportunities that are out there. You’re quite right, a lot of SMEs this is not going to be the top of their agenda, but it’s not that difficult we need to be encouraging more apprenticeships and looking at our education system and the skills that we want. It should be that girls and boys, it does not matter, can take any subject.