This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating some of the amazing women within our business, making changes in the workplace to support gender equality and championing other women to excel in their careers.
First up, we spoke to Sarah Martin, CEO of Unify Energy (part of the Bruntwood Group) and a fantastic female leader who has spent much of her career working within traditionally male-dominated spaces.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
For me, International Women’s Day is really important to give women a voice and a platform when in quite a lot of environments they don’t have one. With any kind of minority group or group that has suffered discrimination, you need that platform to elavate the voice of those people.
We all need to embody what International Women’s Day means for each of us on a daily basis. But I think it’s a great opportunity to have a day where everyone can galvanise around that. And not just women, but men, also. I’ve worked with some absolutely amazing male leaders and some of my best mentors have been men, who really appreciate the diversity of thought and skillset that women bring to the table and it’s a good opportunity for them to celebrate those women, too.
What has been your experience of equality in the workplace?
I’ve had quite varied experiences, including some awesome experiences. Technology has really been where I’ve cut my teeth since leaving university and those industries are quite dominated by men. I’ve had great mentorship and opportunities afforded to me by some really great male leaders. But I suppose outside of those safe, protected spaces I’ve often had interesting experiences when it comes to equality and being a female in that working environment.
I remember particular instances as part of a small start up company that grew really quickly in Manchester. The CEO at the time was Elliott Mueller, a fantastic guy and one of my first big influences in business; he spent a lot of time teaching me. In external meetings, people would assume that I was the PA or assistant and he used to get really embarrassed. He would have to over-compensate to make sure that people knew that the young, blonde Irish girl actually knew what she was talking about.
It’s been more than ten years now and as the leader of Unify Energy I still encounter a lot of those moments. I don’t get too hung up on those when they happen. I want to be part of the solution, rather than get distracted by the angst that it can understandably cause.
How do you think we can help to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace?
One of the reasons I love Bruntwood and why I was drawn to Bruntwood is because the business is focused on diversity and family. It knows that of course you can have a career and you can have a family. That’s really important. When people are happy at work, they help to drive more successful business so it makes sense for everybody.
I think because of that, we don’t as an organisation see some of the same problems that I know exist in industry. If a lot more organisations were flexible and offered that empathetic approach to parenting and working and maybe focussed more on outputs in terms of objectives rather than time spent at your desk, then more women might be able to balance that family life work life piece.
42% of women work part time, whereas only 12% of men do and I definitely think that a lot of women choose to work part time so that they can juggle some of those other things. More flexible working might mean that more women might work full time and just stagger their working day a little bit differently. Or who’s to say that you can’t do a full time week in 30 hours. That feels like a way that we could review the impact of empowering women in the workplace and at home.
And I think it’s also true in reverse. I feel very passionately about the opportunities that men don’t have. You hear a lot about how we want women to be able to balance having a family and coming back to the workplace. The easiest way to let women to do all of these things is to let men do all of the other things. People make assumptions that men don’t take time after a baby is born because they don’t want to, but what would happen to a man in those male dominated workplaces if they were to suddenly say I’m going to take 6 months to look after the newborn? It’s great that legally they can do that, but there’s the cultural element too. To provide women with equality, we also need to provide men with equality.
How do you think businesses should be helping women who may have been affected more by the pandemic?
Unfortunately, for all of the historic reasons, women have been impacted more by the pandemic because they’ve naturally fallen into those caregiving roles. And even those that haven’t necessarily lost their jobs, for example if a woman volunteers to take furlough for 9 months because that’s what's needed for the family to balance what’s going on, she might have security of employment, but they lose out on all of those opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, demonstrate their value and be part of key projects.
A lot of the data is focused on how many women have lost their jobs, but even those women who have kept their jobs, there’s going to be that scenario, almost like when you take maternity and go back to work, where there’s that need for reeducation and refocus. I think that’s going to be disproportionately weighted towards women. Employers need to make sure that it is managed properly and put support in place for people in those situations.
What challenges have you faced in getting to where you are today?
I’ve always been really passionate about what I do and being successful. Trying to find the balance of expressing that passion and not coming across as too intense or too cocky or arrogant is something that I think unfortunately women tend to have to think about and temper in ways that male peers and colleagues don’t have in the same way. So if you’re a man with an “I’ll do anything to get to where I want to be” attitude, then that’s okay, but potentially if you’re a woman demonstrating some of those characteristics, then you’re bossy, you’re pushy, you’re loud. That has definitely been a challenge and a battle, particularly in the wrong organisations, but in the right organisations thankfully you don’t experience that.
How do you help drive female leadership at Unify Energy?
I love that three out of five managers in my team are women and we’re resetting the balance; but we haven’t done that intentionally, it’s happened quite organically. The two guys in that management team are the best and support all of their colleagues - female and male alike - really well. On a personal level, it’s very easy to see that those guys are great partners and great dads and great men to have in the team to be honest.
I’m a big believer in flexibility and there’s so much that people will naturally want to contribute if they’re the right people for the roles. But they have a life and they have families and they shouldn’t have to choose. Our whole mantra at Unify Energy is to be part of a great team and do great things, but you don’t need to sacrifice the other great things to do that. We really live and breathe that and it’s helped men and women in the team to manage those commitments that they’ve had, especially during the pandemic.
How are you helping to forge a gender equal world?
From a conscious perspective, I’m constantly looking for new things that we can try that improve diversity. We’re just about to recruit for a new role and we’re using a fantastic startup called JobSeekers which has created a platform to tackle unconscious bias. They match the role profile with the right candidate without revealing some of those key characteristics like gender, ethnicity, age. You get a fit score and based on that score, you then reveal the candidate. It’s acknowledging and recognising that people do operate with a little bit of bias, but they don’t want to and this tool helps that. There’s some really intentional things like that that we’re doing.
On a personal level it’s about being patient, empathetic and kind with colleagues and team members. I want the best people in my team to do the best things, but understanding that they’ve got a life outside of work will empower them to give their all and that’s helped over the last year. We’ve gone from strength to strength.
I’m going to continue to be incredibly passionate about SmartWorks and helping women back into employment which post pandemic is going to be more important than it’s ever been, giving women a helping hand. Find out more about SmartWorks and Sarah’s work with the charity here.
Find out more about women in leadership and creating equality in the workplace as part of our International Women’s Day celebrations. We’ve also spoken to our Development Surveyor, Natalie Ernest and Group Brand and Marketing Director, Nicola McGee. You can read all of our stories on the Bruntwood blog.