“We need more high-profile senior female leaders for girls to aspire to”: Sandwell Business Ambassador Elaine Bruce on International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, with its theme this year of ‘Each for Equal’, we spoke to our female Sandwell Business Ambassadors about their experiences of being business leaders. Here’s Elaine Bruce.


Elaine is Finance Manager at H&R ChemPharm, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of speciality oil and wax products. Elaine’s first role after graduating from university was also in the manufacturing industry. There she encountered sexist behaviour from some colleagues, ranging from being whistled at on the shop floor to what she calls “more overt and inappropriate offers”. This was in 2002.


“While we are less than 20 years on, I believe we have progressed a long way with regards to the behaviour that is deemed acceptable,” Elaine said. “I would be very surprised if such actions occur today and, if they did, I feel they would be isolated incidents and dealt with swiftly”.


Because of her early experience, Elaine has never since worn a skirt to work.


“It is hard for me to change now, but if I were giving advice to a female starting out in a similar situation I would support her choice to wear anything work-appropriate. I would work with her instead to develop her feelings of self-worth and confidence.”


Although workplace culture has changed in the past two decades, and overt sexism is officially unacceptable, Elaine feels the problem hasn’t entirely gone away.


“The male gaze still exists. And I have faced instances where I have been overlooked in a conversation, regardless of role or perceived role, with a male automatically assuming another male is his equal and I am there as a junior.


“I handle this differently depending on the occasion. Sometimes I will exert my presence, whilst other times I will sit back, knowing that a lot can be gleaned from being passive in that situation.”


While Elaine says instances like that are infrequent, she rightly points out that “a couple of times a year are a couple too many”.


What does Elaine think needs to happen to make the business world better for women and girls?


“The opportunities starting out are improving for women, and in the early stages men and women are relatively equal,” Elaine said. “But we need more high-profile senior female leaders for girls to aspire to, and these female leaders need to engage with the younger generation, showing that the higher echelons are not a male-only domain.


“This engagement should be with boys and girls, so it is seen by all children as a norm.”


A life event that still has a bigger impact on working women than working men is parenthood. The percentage of mothers in employment has increased dramatically in the past 40 years – up from 50 percent in 1975 to 72 per cent in 2015. However, even with workplaces becoming increasingly parent friendly, several studies show that working women still bear the brunt of childcare and household work.


It starts with maternity leave. As a mum of three, Elaine knows all too well the pressures mothers face when going back to work.


“Returning to a role afterwards is always hard, as you have to adapt to changes that have taken place during your leave and reaffirm your role within the business. You may find the standards you had set haven’t been maintained in your absence, and tasks have been left for you, as you are the expert. So you have a backlog of work to do, just at the time when you’re trying to settle into a routine for yourself and your family. This can make for a very stressful return.”


Elaine says this transition may not have affected her career in the long term, but it is something she is reflecting on for others.


“I am currently considering how I can improve the reintegration of our team members should they have long periods of absence, and influence my colleagues to do the same.”


As every working parent knows, the baby years are just the beginning. Elaine’s eldest child (aged 13) is currently on trial for an academy football place, with a four-hour round trip to training twice a week. Her middle child is ten and committed to 16-20 hours of weekly gymnastics training. While Elaine’s youngest is still five and not yet involved in hobbies to this extent, Elaine and her husband want her to have the same opportunities as her siblings.


Elaine and her husband also both regularly travel for work.


“How do we manage this? I don’t know! We have spreadsheets so we know where our kids are,” said Elaine. Her family’s arrangements feature wraparound care at school, Elaine’s very supportive mum, and a specialist taxi service which can take unaccompanied children.


Two things that Elaine’s cites as critical to her success in balancing work and family life, though, are the attitude of her husband, and their flexible employment arrangements.


“This is very much a ‘we’ – my husband and I are in this together,” she said. “We also both require flexibility within our workplaces. For smaller organisations this type of flexibility is quite new, but to attract future talent and be a progressive employer, all businesses need to get behind it as people’s lives become more complex.”


Elaine’s experience at H&R ChemPharm tells her that flexible working can and does work.


“The technology is available to support it. It is about the leap of faith needed to really engage with it, and experiencing the benefits it can bring to businesses regardless of their size. To truly succeed, we all need to change the focus away from hours spent in the office and towards achievements.”


Finally, as a business leader who is also a woman and a parent, what would Elaine tell her 16-year-old self?


“I would tell her that she needs to have more confidence in herself but, most of all, to enjoy the journey”.


Happy International Women’s Day, which takes place on Sunday 8 March, from all of the Sandwell Business Ambassadors. #EachForEqual

More from the Sandwell Business Ambassadors: 


* “It was always apparent when people met me for the first time that they were expecting a male Chris, not a female one.” Read about Chris Hinson’s early experiences in IT.


* “There is the sense that we have been recruited because of our skill sets and not gender.” See what else Sanjeev Gill has to say about gender representation in her workplace.


The Ambassadors are a collective of business people in the Sandwell area with the aim of supporting the Sandwell Business Community.

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