Nicola Stott, the co-founder of Exigent, shares her views on what International Women’s Day means for women in two of the toughest industries for gender balance, legal and tech
I have to be upfront about this: I was lucky enough to grow up, both personally and professionally, in an environment where gender just wasn’t an issue. I have never felt discriminated against or that being a woman was an obstacle to what I wanted to achieve. On the occasions when I have come across sexism, it has not stopped me. I founded, together with David Holme, a company that is by its very structure diverse, so I have continued to build a world around me that reflects what I have experienced and stand for: believe in people, no matter their gender, colour of their skin, religion, sexual orientation or social status.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the challenges women face every day in the world, and especially on the professional front. And even more so in the two industries that Exigent intersects with its work: legal and technology. 2018 has been the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the ramp-up of the gender pay gap conversation in corporates and many other initiatives (like the First 100 Years project ) that have brought the conversation considerably forward on gender equality. Not all pleasant to see and hear, but change always requires a certain amount of nerve. So, I’d like first of all take the time to recognize that. I see International Women’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women and at the same time tenaciously challenge bias.
This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. I’d make a small addition: Balance for ‘even’ Better. We’ve come so far and today is the day we stop, think back and feel proud of the great strides we’ve made in terms of awareness, representation, and access. Moving away from a rhetoric of victimhood (which I believe cripples us rather than propelling the movement), in the last century and decade women have been hugely successful. I see it from my own network: more and more women are getting seats on companies’ boards, being promoted to GC roles, leading legal tech companies as COOs or CEOs and breaking new ground as start-up founders.
To accelerate progress of course we need to tackle inequality on all fronts: legally, collectively, personally. Professionally, I think the key lies in something much broader than gender equality: it’s the definition of success and therefore of leadership that needs to change. It’s not about seniority and power. The focus needs to shift towards leaders as people, not titles. You don’t just live off telling your peers you are a CEO. You need balance (it’s the keyword here, after all!) between work and all the other aspects of life: mental and physical health, love and support from your network (be it family or friends), feeling connected and having hobbies that make our body move and your heart sing.
As women we know this very well: juggling family and work is a necessity for many. Extending this to include the findings of John Gerzema’s research, leaders should focus on developing stronger softer skills. It sounds like an oxymoron, but so-called ‘feminine’ values are on the up. To be honest, I don’t like the use of the word ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’- there is nothing soft or fluffy about the ability to be empathetic or the grit required to truly nurture, listen, collaborate and share. But if these terms help us move things along, then so be it. Leaders need to be more balanced human beings, with passion, empathy, and flexibility as the core drivers of their success trajectory.
On a personal level, I’m also acutely aware of the different nuances International Women’s Day has across the world. My role at Exigent takes me to literally every continent on this planet and I see how gender affects conversations and dynamics differently in the UK, USA, India, Australia and South Africa. It’s working across cultures that drives me away from step-by-step guides on how to create gender balance in the workplace. No one size fits all. The only real common denominator is that we are people, so that’s where our focus should be.