Over 70 businesswomen from around the North East heard insightful advice and career tips from leading managers and supporters of female development at a virtual conference.

Organised by North East England Chamber of Commerce, the 7th annual Inspiring Females day-long event was launched by Alix Bolton of Northumbrian Water who chairs the Chamber’s Women’s Leadership Forum.

She said: “The current Covid-19 situation has shown how well we have adapted and started to recover from the lock-down.  We can all take pride and inspiration with how well we have coped as individuals and as members of the North East business community.  There are fantastic examples of women’s leadership at present and this conference gave us all a welcome chance to celebrate it.”

One of these leaders was Carole Harder, Percy Hedley Foundation’s chief executive. She gave an honest overview of her career path which included time as a senior manager in the NHS with three young children.

A passionate advocate of the need to bend and flex career paths to suit women’s various home situations, she said: “I have worked for Percy Hedley for nine years and hope I have created a positive and flexible culture for all my staff.  In terms of women’s development in particular I think it is vital they are encouraged to become managers because once they take that step, they fly.

“Covid-19, strange as it sounds, has been a silver lining for female leaders as it has created agile working overnight.  It has provided solutions and taken away barriers that have often previously hampered their development.  My advice to the next generation of women is to ensure they have their own personal priorities on their to do list, not just work and family commitments.”

Insights on women’s careers in Bulgaria were also shared at the conference, with a talk by the head of the British Bulgarian Business Association, Desi Miteva.  She said the socialist system in her country when she was young meant that all women worked which was beneficial as it gave them income and independence. Bulgaria has two sectors where female leaders have a strong presence, the Tech/IT sector and banking/finance.

To encourage more young women to enter careers where they are underrepresented, such as the diplomatic service, Desi mentioned the Ambassador for a Day initiative of the British Ambassador in Bulgaria H.E. Emma Hopkins.

It has been successful in giving girls 15-19 yrs a window on what an Ambassador does and how to become one, by shadowing women in that role.

Desi Miteva said: “We are very fortunate to have great strength in the outsourcing sector and for example, thanks to senior female leaders’ networks, we have attracted 5,000 jobs from Hewlett Packard.  Our country also has a substantial number of women in NGOs as the desire to work for good causes is very strong and appeals to them, compared to men in Bulgaria.”

Also speaking at the conference was mindfulness expert, Dr Lucy Harrison from MBCT North East who outlined the advantages of this technique to mental health well-being. and Laura Seebohm of Changing Lives.  Laura set out the charity’s initiatives which have helped to transform the lives of many women who had suffered abuse or hardship in their lives.  She said the secret to success was to create a culture for learning so they could be their best and try to take away any obstacles to them achieving this.

Tracey Bowman, Director of HR and Corporate Affairs, and apprentice Charys Urwin, both from Komatsu, explained the initiatives underway in the business to encourage more women to become engineers and apprentices.  Tracey said “there is now much more emphasis on improving gender diversity in the business at a global level”.  She outlined the direction coming from the Japanese Government which businesses are taking on board, and where they state that ‘women can shine – this is not just a social issue, it’s also an economic issue’.  Komatsu is tackling unconscious bias through training and in the wording of job adverts, actively promoting female engineers through its network of STEM Ambassadors, and in competitions and exhibitions, and encouraging the use of the Everywoman learning platform which the Company implemented just over two years ago.

Closing the Chamber’s Inspiring Females conference was its President, Lesley Moody, from AES Digital.  Her advice for the next generation of businesswomen was to explore new opportunities, be selective what work you go for in your business, be responsive to customers and empower your staff.

The Chamber has a regular series of seminars and networking opportunities, more details are on www.neechamber.co.uk.

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