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  • Publish Date: Posted 29 days ago
Women's History Month 2024 Front Cover

​​​Celebrating Women’s History Month: A Q&A With Our Female Leaders

At Empresaria, we believe diversity is the key to realizing our purpose and are proud to have women in many of our key leadership roles. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we spoke with Penny Freer, our Chair of the Board of Directors and Rhona Driggs, CEO of Empresaria Group to discuss the theme of "Inspiring Inclusion," and the importance of creating an inclusive and balanced environment for everyone.

Penny and Rhona's positions as Chair of the Board and CEO sends a powerful message of representation - "If you can see it, you can be it." Penny highlights the importance of visibility, noting that having a diverse group of people in an organisation can encourage more diverse groups to apply to roles across the board. Meanwhile, Rhona shares her advice for tackling challenges, expressing "The most important thing is to believe in yourself. Set ambitious goals and dream big. Embrace every challenge as an opportunity for growth and be resilient in the face of setbacks."

Every action, no matter how small, has an impact on shaping a more inclusive world. Read Rhona and Penny’s thoughts and vision on achieving equality in the workplace.

Q1: What does the theme of International Women’s Day 2024, “Inspire Inclusion”, mean to you personally and professionally?

Rhona: The best way to “Inspire Inclusion” is to lead by example. Taking deliberate actions to create environments where women feel valued, respected, and empowered to fully participate and succeed. It’s about encouraging people to achieve their goals, no matter the obstacles, and to use their voices to be heard.

On a personal level, it underscores the importance of being a role model to my daughters. It’s showing them that diversity is celebrated, encouraging them to embrace their uniqueness, and teaching them how to be an advocate for equality and challenging biases.

Penny: It would be great if we didn’t have to have this conversation and that there were men and women in the workplace, and they were given the same opportunities, regardless of gender. But days like International Women’s Day are important, to shine a spotlight on issues where we still need improvement, but the end goal should be that we don’t need to call it out because everyone is included.

One thing I feel strongly about is that inclusion is about including everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background. However, I do accept and understand that we must focus on certain groups until this is a reality.

Q2: Who have been the mentors that have lifted you and inspired you along your journey?

Rhona: I’ve been fortunate to have had two amazing mentors early on in my career. They were exceptional leaders who inspired me daily to pursue my passions. Their examples underscored the importance of leading by example and fuelled my drive to rise up. I encourage everyone to actively seek out mentors who you can learn from, that not only inspire and uplift you but are able to provide you with honest feedback to continually improve.

I am also blessed to be surrounded by remarkable female allies in our industry. Their unwavering support and encouragement have been invaluable, serving as a constant source of support and motivation. I am incredibly blessed with the lifelong friendships that have grown from these relationships, shaping my journey in ways I could have never imagined.

Penny: I was very lucky growing up as my father always said, “You can do anything you put your mind to”. I always remember that even now.

My first job in the city was in a very male-dominated industry, and I was the first female they had employed who wasn’t in a support role. There were very few women working in the industry at that time, which meant I didn’t have any female mentors early on. In reality, support and advancement came from men who wanted the best person for the job regardless of gender. I was very fortunate to work with men who gave me equal opportunities to the men in my peer group.

I think I was also fortunate that when I was moving into a more senior position, there was a greater influx of women coming into the city. I was more able to influence hiring at my firm. We went from having no ‘front office’ women to 20%, quite a significant increase over a couple of years.

Later in my career, when I started taking on non-exec director roles, I was very fortunate to work with other female non-execs who supported me by making me feel welcome and that my experience and input were valued. I appreciated that support and kindness, in what was a very new environment for me.

Q3: How can organizations ensure women have equal opportunities for leadership roles and are inspired to contribute to the company's direction/strategy?

Rhona: I think this is an area that needs to be prioritised – we can do better! At the current rate of progress, it will take 286 years for the world to achieve gender equality. Per the World Economic Forum, it will take another 131 years to close the global gender gap.

We must foster a culture of inclusion and support where women feel empowered to succeed. We need to actively seek input and feedback on our strategic priorities and create avenues for open communication and collaboration, to ensure that diverse perspectives are heard and valued.

Penny: I think one of the things is how you ask for opinions and how you have conversations with your team and individuals. This isn’t strictly relevant to just women, it’s more about inclusion in general. The person leading a meeting or team must make sure everyone’s voice is heard. It’s essential to create an environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute.

Some individuals can be very put off from contributing if they don’t feel comfortable enough and if they are working with others who show more confidence, they may hold back. It is incumbent on the person who is leading the discussion to make sure everyone feels involved and their opinions are valued.

Q4: How can we encourage our male colleagues to be more inclusive of women in the workplace?

Penny: I work with a global venture capital firm where 50% of the workforce is female, it wouldn’t occur to the employees that there isn’t equality in the workplace. If we look at different generations and young people, perhaps it’s becoming less of an issue.

When it comes to promoting equality, it’s not always about focusing on the obvious things. I recently participated in a discussion about maternity leave, and we talked about how better support for men in the workplace would improve maternity practices for women too. The introduction of shared parental leave is a positive step forward as it helps women return to work with more support.

Rhona: This is an area where I feel we can make a huge difference by encouraging male colleagues to champion inclusivity and support for women in the workplace. As Penny said, it’s sometimes not just the obvious things we need to be focused on. We need to foster awareness, promote understanding, and continually cultivate an environment that values diversity.

By developing more male allies and raising awareness of their potential impact on gender equality, we can significantly contribute to closing the gender gap.

Q5: What strategies or mindset shifts have you found most effective in overcoming any biases as a female leader?

Penny: You don’t need to do things exactly the same way as someone else in order to do a good job. You need to be confident in yourself and in how you are leading the team or the business.

Imposter syndrome can show up in women. Females can generally be less confident and humble about their abilities, but nevertheless, you need to demonstrate confidence, show competence and inspire your team.

Rhona: I feel having the right mindset is crucial as a female leader. Penny speaks about imposter syndrome which is very real, and I think quite possibly, one of the biggest things holding women back. It’s important to seek mentors and allies who can help build your confidence and provide you with perspective. Don’t let fear hold you back from pursuing opportunities or taking on challenges. It’s important to take calculated risks and step out of your comfort zone, knowing that growth often occurs outside of it.

It's important to continually advocate for ourselves, be resilient, and actively seek allies. We need to also remember that as leaders, we can use our platforms to promote gender equality and create opportunities for other women to succeed.

Q6: What do you believe are the most important steps organizations can take to create a more inclusive environment for women at all levels?

Rhona: You should ensure that you continually foster an inclusive and supportive environment for women at all levels. You should establish DE&I committees to seek out input from your teams and ensure continual education across your organisation. Encourage people to celebrate diversity by embracing our differences and working together to build a more equitable and inclusive workplace.

Penny: I don’t believe in quotas. I believe in appointing people based on merit and selecting the best candidate for the job. Having said that, the more diversity you have in an organization, the more diversity you will get. If candidates can see a diverse group of individuals in your organization, this will encourage different groups of people to apply for roles across the board.

In recruitment, ensuring a long list is presented for roles is important and this is often where recruitment companies like Empresaria can help. It doesn’t mean that a female candidate will ultimately be chosen but if there aren’t any females on that list then organizations don’t have the opportunity to consider a varied talent pool.

To foster and develop a diverse and inclusive environment, a business must have the relevant policies in place. But ultimately, it’s the responsibility of management and all employees to create and ‘live’ this ethos.

Q7: What advice would you offer to inspire the next generation of female leaders? 

Rhona: Embrace every challenge as an opportunity for growth and be resilient in the face of setbacks. Lean into your mentors and build strong professional networks of like-minded people. Your mentors and networks should include both men and women – do not exclude men in your quest for inclusion as some of my best mentors have been male, and their perspective is valuable.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to believe in yourself, set ambitious goals and don’t be afraid to go after them.

Penny: I say the same thing to my son and daughter, as my father said to me – “You can do anything you set your mind to”. I absolutely believe that. Build yourself a strong network of both males and females to help navigate your career path.

Don’t underestimate what you’re capable of. Work is a huge part of most people’s lives; I once read that “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.

If you develop a career that you are passionate about, and find people who can help support you, then make sure to pass on that help, advice, and support to others.