International Women’s Day: Non-Executive Director Q&A

8 March 2021

Mike Russell

With a world pandemic in play, this year’s International Women’s Day is like no other.  As organisations begin to recover, there is a real opportunity for business strategies to develop in order for women to take up leadership positions to enable them to play a full role in the decision-making process.

We sat down with Sarah Pierman, non-executive director at MV who joined the MV board just as the pandemic broke in March 2020.

MV: Can you give us an overview of your current roles and responsibilities?

SP: I’m a banker turned entrepreneur and non-executive director. I currently have three roles, two as a non-exec, and the third inspiring others to consider becoming a non-exec! I joined Mutual Vision in March 2020 as a non-executive director, I’ve met the team in person just once over the past year but feel very much part of the MV family.

Alongside my role at MV, I currently sit on the board of Home Instead, a home care franchise company, also based in the North West. After getting to know the stuffy, and often elitist, non-executive director market, myself and my co-founder launched Dynamic Boards last year. We provide free access to non-exec roles for all, and we use data to help UK boards get their board roles in front of those who will make their boards more dynamic. 

MV: As a female in a leadership position, what are some of the biggest challenges and lessons you have learned?

SP: I have to say the first promotion I got was the most dramatic. I was an assistant director in a banking team and when I was first given the news that I would be promoted, the Managing Director told me it was “long overdue”.  I then realised that my male colleague with the same experience and time served, had been promoted 3 months earlier and I felt I had been overlooked simply because I wasn’t at the pub each Friday watching football with the MD.  That was a real light bulb moment for me and I understood the stark reality of the bias that plays out within organisations.  It’s a sharp reminder that there must be a fair and just process when it comes to recruitment and personal development, and it pays to ensure that you make yourself aware of what that process is.

Looking at the non-executive roles I inhabit now, I actually find my age brings more attention than being female, but I find I can use the combination of being a thirty-something female to my advantage.  I am naturally a friendly and bubbly person which people find disarming, so I often get the opportunity to hear honest and open reflections from those who might not have a voice around the boardroom or might not speak so freely there. This gives me extra insights on culture and performance, which I can then lean on when contributing at board level.  When it comes to building an organisations’ culture, multigenerational and diverse boards are essential to success.

MV: What do you think Covid has taught us in the boardroom?

SP: It’s fair to say that the perceived glamour (the lunches, dinners etc.) associated with non-executive roles has been dulled slightly with the shift to virtual environments, which some more traditional non-executives may have found difficult. I think many board members have been surprised at how well we can function with board meetings purely online. My long-term hope is that we can adopt a hybrid approach where we can orchestrate deeper dives and rich creative and strategic sessions when we are face to face.

Empathy is most certainly on the up.  The pandemic has encouraged boards to take more interest in the welfare of employees.  It has also proved that flexible and remote working can be extremely efficient and productive, and it should be made available to all those that need it.

Could there be positives to come from this time? I hope so. I liken it to an analogy I once heard at an inclusive tech conference. The speaker talked about an initiative launched in the US known as the ‘curb cut effect’ where curbs were modified to aid accessibility for disabled people, specifically veterans returning home.  What they quickly learned was that lower curbs actually helped a whole range of people with access issues, for example, those with other disabilities, or those pushing prams. Perhaps in a similar way, working practices designed to sustain us through lockdowns could help us to become more inclusive of those with caring responsibilities, and those with disabilities going forward. The ‘covid effect’ could become synonymous with a more inclusive shift in workplace practices.

MV: What do you think are the biggest challenges ahead for females in tech pursuing a leadership position?  

SP: There is no denying that we have pipeline issues for STEM industries with girls and young women moving through the education process and I think there is a big challenge to unpick that.  There is still a strong matching of gender to roles and we need to proactively promote images of female engineers, software developers etc. to help address this.

When I studied maths at Oxford, there were very few female students on the course, when I graduated and moved into banking, women in leadership were definitely in the minority and when I started in tech there were fewer females again.  As a leader in this industry, I feel a sense of responsibility to be a role model and to champion other women in tech.  When asked for an introduction, I will actively seek out other women to refer to and likewise, I have learned that I need to specifically seek out introductions to other women for projects I am working on.  From a talent attraction perspective, there is a task around broadening what tech actually means.  There are so many diverse roles available within tech companies and we need to do more to promote these appropriately to female audiences.

Thinking about MV specifically, I am pleased to say that working with them is a real joy and they have been nothing but welcoming since I joined in March 2020.  There is a diverse mix of people and ages, all connected by a passion for what MV stands for.  They are very self-aware, reflective and humble and every member of the leadership team has a voice which is truly refreshing.

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