Inspirational Speeches from the Men as Agents of Change Event

John Timpson, CBE

John Timpson, CBE, Timpson Limited

In 1869, my great grandfather opened a shoe shop in the centre of Manchester.  It was so successful by the time he died there were 150 Timpson shops across the North of England and Scotland. He had five daughters before he had the son who ran the business for 50 years with the help of three of his younger brothers. This eldest son had two daughters before my father was born and followed in his father’s footsteps. I was expected to do the same, while my elder sister, who I’ve no doubt was much more commercial than me, was sent to a domestic science college before taking a secretarial course.

At the age of 17, I was a shoe shop assistant starting at the bottom but being the blue eyed boy was almost bound to reach the top.  I didn’t follow the script, against my father’s wishes I sent an application to Nottingham University.

I’ve never been good at filling in forms and realised something was wrong when I turned up for my interview with 30 girls and one other boy. I’d mistakenly ticked the box for social administration instead of industrial economics. That initial visit gave the wrong impression, less than 20% of undergraduates were women who almost all chose traditionally feminine degrees.

When I was given a proper job in 1965 our office had four dining rooms, for directors, senior executives, junior executives and the canteen for everyone else. Top managers had personal parking bays – the lower the bay number the higher their status. When they reached a certain level they could wear a grey coat and use the executive lavatory. We didn’t need an executive ladies loo, the most senior women were Miss Creasey who supervised the typing pool and Doris Ferguson, the welfare officer. Women were paid at a lower rate and had little chance of promotion. There was no maternity leave, pregnancy usually led to a P45.

I mention my past as one of the oldest people present to show how much has changed in 55 years. No doubt the trend towards equality has been accelerated by legislation, but as well as changes in the law I’ve seen a dramatic shift in company cultures. However, before women can play a full role in the business world one big barrier still needs breaking down. With most businesses still led by men, women must get their message through to men as clearly as they do to women.

This is an unusual gathering. At most meetings about women in the workplace you’d be in a room full of women.  The role of women is usually only discussed between one woman and another. But to finally win the argument they must convince those male chauvinist champions of commerce who still consider women are second best.

Most men, speaking on this subject, back the feminine stance although some may possibly be playing a politically correct card. I’m not here to play politics I want to give a sincere and honest man’s point of view.

I’m wary of KPIs. Too much emphasis is put on the percentage of women in top jobs, especially in the board room, and not enough is said about why it’s so important to give women a greater say. The emphasis should be on making sure talented women aren’t prevented from promotion rather than handing out top jobs to comply with a quota.

The campaign to put more women on boards, instead of being driven by percentages should be carefully crafted by picking superb candidates whose performance is certain to strengthen the case for others hoping to follow in their footsteps.

In a more flexible workplace women will progressively play a more prominent part, but we won’t have a level playing field until the last major pocket of prejudice has disappeared.

The battle will have been won when we stop being prejudiced against women, and indeed men, who, for the best possible reason, take extended leave to look after their pre-school age children.

The most thoughtless and damaging discrimination is against those who take a career break. It’s nonsense to think people who have a few years away from work (and office politics) return with a lower ability and less potential. Often the reverse is true. Many mums and some dads come back better equipped for management more organised and with much more common sense.

Women wanting a bigger say don’t need procedures, quotas and legislation to claim a permanent place in the pecking order.  There is a clear business case to support their cause.

The key to creating a great business is to recruit the best talent. Great people come in all shapes and sizes and there’s a good fifty/fifty chance that the best man for the job will be a woman.

Gradually more companies, like mine, will be happy to tailor their workplace to attract the best talent. That often means flexible working (for men as well as women). In a digital world it seldom matters where or when you work, the important thing is how good you are at the job. We have colleagues who work from home, some work weekends others take Friday off, another works from home throughout the school holidays. Not all of our flexible workers are women but they have one thing in common – they are all very good at their job. And another thing, flexible working helps wellbeing.  By trusting colleagues to work the way they want you are creating a contented and happy team who give you their loyal support.

At today’s Timpson, although we impose no quotas, a lot of women are in top jobs, what we call Cobblers’ Cafe is our only dining room (breakfast is free before 8.45am), and the one designated parking bay is for our colleague of the month.

Some people think we run our business in a strange way which I call upside down management. We try to fill the company with colleagues whose personality rates 9 or 10 out of 10, then give them the freedom to work the way they wish. Our job is to give them the support they need. One of the secrets is to look after your colleagues, especially the superstars. The most popular measures are our readiness to encourage flexible working, our 7 free stay holiday homes and the fact that everyone gets an extra paid holiday on their birthday.

Last week I gave the text of this speech to my daughter Victoria, who is our eldest child but decided after a month in the business she would prefer to find her happiness elsewhere. She thought I was being a bit bland and that I should finish by making my opinion crystal clear.

The days of the macho city desk where all but wimps sat from 8 in the morning ’til after 6 at night have been bad for business. I like colleagues who share the school run and are keen to leave work to watch their childrens’ sports day. Flexible working will help us employ the best people and give more of the top jobs to women. But I don’t want women to act like men, I want them to be themselves.

I don’t like rules that tell me how to run our business. We only promote from within the company but don’t positively discriminate in favour of women or men. Our culture encourages us to find the best person for the job and recognise excellence.

For the good of men as well as women, the debate about women in the workplace will be almost over when everyone else sees things in a similar way.


Larry Hirst.

Larry Hirst, CBE

Let me say at the outset. It’s not just about diversity it’s about inclusion.

Diversity comes from across society, we often call them minority groups, each bring with them a freshness that is to be encouraged and welcomed. However in addition to this convenient and mostly physical classification we are all members of many tribes: wealth, religion, race, sexuality, mental ability, social interests, social and educational background. But the fact remains that the two largest tribes relate to one’s gender.

But are we so different? Whether learned or genetic, the gender differences are small. I believe each has a spectrum with significant overlap. The issue for me is that western corporate business has been and is still being driven from the extreme macho/ alpha, end of the male spectrum. So even these Male dominated entities are not inclusive of the huge majority of the male population.

So here we are, great analysis, documented statistics. All supporting the fact that Companies that had the vision to appoint significant female presence at Exec and non-exec levels perform better. So given performance is what Chairman, and CEO’s are supposedly about, why doesn’t this happen naturally.

What is the fundamental issue? I believe there is a ceiling. Whatever material it’s made out of, it is a Corporate ceiling supported by today’s pervasive business culture.

The perception that ‘Nice people finish last’.

In a profile survey of FTSE and S&P CEO’s 90% rated their top2 personality traits as Dominance and Influence. Interestingly 48% of women versus 40% of men rated Dominance as number 1. And out of 40 choices of Top Ten Commandments, women rated Achievement of results as number 1 whereas men had this at 5.

This is Diversity but its not Inclusion.

These Coercive characteristics often manifest themselves in the form of Bullying. This behaviour has led to the significant increases in work related issues such as mental health problems the increasing breakdowns in integrity, morality and even family life.

Clinical Depression is now a discrimination category under law.

So what are we going to do? Well we could simply decide that this is the way business is done. In which case let’s stop the debate about diversity, pick the members of all tribes that thrive in this culture and get on with it. In other words, Tribe quotas’s and not just for women.

Or we can set about changing the culture? Can we focus on inclusion, bringing individuality to bear.

Changing the culture of thousands of people is very difficult to accomplish. Business schools don’t teach you how to do it. You can’t lead the revolution from the splendid isolation of corporate headquarters. You can’t simply give a couple of speeches or write a new credo for the company and declare that the new culture has taken hold. You cannot mandate it. You cannot quota for it.

What you can do is to create the conditions for transformation. You can provide incentives. You can define the marketplace realities and goals. But then you have to trust. In the end Management doesn’t change culture. Management invites the workforce itself to change culture.

I believe that the only route to sustainable diversity is when an organisation has in its core the diversity ratio’s that will sustain those same splits at Exec level.

So let me share with you actions I have taken in the past to drive inclusion, specifically around Gender. I would be happy to share more detail about these or the other areas that I also drove.

15 years ago In IBM UK our female head count was above the industry but below 20%. We focused initially on driving female graduate recruitment. Today I believe it is in the high 40’s, if not 5x’s%. However, Our real problem was the loss of women employees, especially in the mid-career timeframe. After gaining legal approval we conducted a survey of female employees who had left the business in the previous 5 years. In short they told us that the problem was ‘ work life balance’. I banned the term part-time and declared all jobs including my own as flexible. But was that enough. Legally I am not allowed to give numbers. Simple answer NO. But I have never given up, this is why I was a founding sponsor of Everywoman and to this day after 14 years, I am still a Mentor to the founders and an Ambassador.

Lets re-write the executive competencies that we use to rate and mentor our people.

Lets create an environment where bullying is unacceptable. I am Happy to share what I did in IBM

Lets define the competencies, skills and styles that we require to create Balanced Boards.

Lets look for bold and creative Chairmen & CEO’s who have the vision and the personal skills to manage and utilise such diverse groups of people.

If I may quote Sue O’Brien UK CEO of Norman Broadbent.

“I believe the Western Corporate Culture that has dominated International business for many years has come to a major inflection point. Global trade is going to depend on Businesses operating in multi-faceted eco systems. This will require their executives to have the ability to work with the skills and talents of all tribes. Eventually a new Global Culture of business will evolve. It will be inclusive and especially of that tribe who today in the UK is becoming the largest and best educated. Women.”


Martin Robb

Martin Robb, The Open University 

I’ve been asked to share a few headline messages from my research.  I want to make 6 key points.

To start on a positive note:

1. There’s a lot already going on that we can build on in terms of engaging men in gender equality

While there’s still obviously a long way to go – we also need to take note of how far we’ve travelled – and what we can build on.

One of the ways in which men can support equality for women at work – is by taking an equal share in the care of their children, and in domestic responsibilities more generally – which has been one of the main focuses of my own research.

Although the picture is varied and uneven, we’ve seen an increase in men’s involvement in the care of their children in the past 20 years or so. When our own children were small, I was fortunate in having a job that enabled me to work from home a lot of the time – and as a result I did most of the transporting to and from school, nursery, doctor’s appointments, and so on. In those days I was often the only man at the clinic, or at the school gate – now, it’s much more normal and acceptable to see men taking on these roles – and the number of men involved in their children’s care, or even taking the role of stay-at-home dads, has increased tremendously.

Just as importantly, I think we’ve seen a parallel changes in men’s – most men’s – attitudes – and in wider social attitudes. Increasingly, being a good man, a good father – maybe being a good manager – isn’t just about being the breadwinner – it’s about being there for your children and your family. Men who don’t pull their weight in the home are increasingly frowned on socially – and among their male peers. That’s not to say it’s the same in all social groups or every workplace.

At the same time, and again we need to be cautious about this, there’s been a shift in attitudes towards things such as gender-based violence and sexist language and imagery. In the last few years we’ve seen the growth of campaigns that enlist men on the side of gender equality – MenEngage, White Ribbon, and the high profile HeforShe campaign launched by Emma Watson at the United Nations.

Yes, I’m sure we all have our reservations about how widespread these changes are, and I’m sure we can all think of exceptions from our own experience, but there is a shift, I think, particularly among a younger generation of men – and we can build on this in engaging men’s support for gender equality.

2. Changing policies and structures can make a difference

In the longterm, we need to work for deeper changes in attitudes, but in the medium term, implementing changes in policies and structures – whether at the societal or the company level – can change behaviour.

I recently attended a Europe-wide seminar in Finland on men and gender equality, where there was a lot of discussion of arrangements for parental leave – and a lot of interest in the example of some of the Nordic countries, which have implemented nontransferable and often paid paternity leave – and we’ve seen some recent initiatives here in the UK for improving access to shared parental leave. The lesson of these schemes is that structural change can lead to a change in men’s behaviour. It can make men realise that this is something they want – and they will take it up with enthusiasm, if the scheme is right.

3. Women play a vital role in influencing men’s attitudes to gender equality

My own research shows that men who are what we might call gender equality pioneers have often been influenced by the example of women in their lives. Men that I interviewed who were involved fathers, or opting to work in childcare, talked about the crucial influence of their mothers, grandmothers, or female teachers, on their own values and attitudes.

I think this works in other ways too. Increasingly, men have wives, partners, daughters, who are in the workforce – and are achieving success there. My late father-in-law was very much an old-fashioned male manager– but he became something of an unlikely feminist when he saw his own daughter working to build a career as one of the few women managers in her company.

4. Gender equality benefits men as well as women

More flexible working arrangements and improved access to parental leave mean that men, as well as women, get to spend more time with their families. My own research shows that fathers can care – and many men find that an opportunity to be more involved in their children’s care makes for a better quality of life – as well as for better relationships with their partners.

In terms of the workplace, and without falling back on stereotypes, my own personal experience – and it’s borne out by my research – is that a more gender equal workplace is generally a better place to be. Not all men are cutthroat and hyper-competitive and many prefer a more cooperative and supportive office or shop-floor. Certainly my own experience, of working in the voluntary sector and now in academia, where the majority of my colleagues and many of my line managers have been women – has been mostly beneficial.

So men have a great deal to gain from gender equality, whether at home or at work – and we can use this to enlist their support.

At the same time, we need to be honest:

5. Gender equality doesn’t always benefit men.

We need to admit that there are some costs as well as benefits for men in this process. There may be fewer seats at the table for men, if we achieve greater equality for women in recruitment and promotion. And standing up for women’s rights in the workplace may not always be a popular move for men.

But the message of my research, and of my own experience, is that men don’t act only out of self-interest – whatever our stereotypical views of masculinity. Most men have a strong sense of justice too – and many men will want to support gender equality simply because it’s the right thing to do.

6. What can men do – and what can we do to engage men?

Men should be certainly encouraged to take their caring responsibilities seriously – and managers need to make it easier for men to do this – and at the same time make sure that men and women who take time off for caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged when they return to work.

Managers should also question and challenge the long hours culture that still prevails in many parts of British business – and which while it mostly disadvantages women, who still do the bulk of the caring at home, also discourages men from taking a full part in family life – and thus supporting their partners’ careers.

Men should support their female colleagues in campaigns for more flexible working, better access to promotion, taking a stand against discrimination and so on. And managers need to support men who do this – and at the same time think of imaginative ways to involve men in moves to improve gender equality. We need to encourage men to sit on gender equality committees and to take responsibility for making change – and not see it as just a women’s issue. We need to involve men in discussions about gender equality – but carefully – without men taking them over – and without playing into the hands of the men’s rights lobby.

To conclude: men can and must be agents for change in achieving gender equality – it certainly isn’t going to happen without them.