Panel mark Women's Day with career discussion

By Harriet Ernstsons Wednesday 12 March 2014 Updated: 12/03 12:57

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Buy photos » The panel - Sue Hanley, Chief Insp Helena Bennett, Sue Foster-Agg, Karen Drinkwater, Tina O'Brian and MP Karen Lumley. (s)

REDDITCH'S MP has claimed she would have considered quitting if the Prime Minister had enforced all women shortlists.

Karen Lumley was speaking during a debate featuring six of the borough's successful women at NEW College to mark International Women's Day.

Asked about whether shortlists featuring only women were a good idea, Mrs Lumley said she would have been 'insulted' to have been selected to stand in Parliament based on her gender not her abilities.

"I would have thought am I here to make the numbers up or because I'm the best candidate?"

The panel - made up of the MP, Sue Hanley - deputy chief executive of Redditch and Bromsgrove councils, Tina O'Brian - managing director at Exactech UK Ltd, Sue Foster-Agg - headteacher at Vaynor First School and executive head of Crabbs Cross Academy, Karen Drinkwater - director at JSC Rotational Ltd - and Chief Insp Helen Bennett from West Mercia Police - were asked for their views on everything from whether their earning potential had been reduced because of their agenda and how they coped with negative comments.

Here are a selection of their responses:

Sue Foster-Agg -

Mrs Foster-Agg took a degree to start off her teaching life but said she did not aim to be a headteacher.

She said her greatest challenge had been becoming a deputy head, something she had gone for 11 interviews for, adding her earning potential had been reduced but only because she had taken the time out to have children although she said before legislation had changed it was much easier for men to rise through the ranks of management.

"When you look back it isn't the day to day stuff, it isn't managing a budget. It was getting through that stage. The most important thing is perseverance."

She said she had actually done the opposite of all women shortlists by actively trying to recruit more men to teaching positions.

"But we have not been successful because girls have always been stronger at interview. We should just stand up and have confidence."

Sue Hanley -

Ms Hanley started in local government as a temporary job for six months but said she had now been there for 35 years - moving to the area from Middlesborough in 1999. She did a professional qualification rather than a degree and now holds the position of deputy chief executive at Redditch Borough and Bromsgrove District Councils.

She said she wished young women were given the inspiration to believe in themselves much earlier on.

"It took me probably 20 years to stop thinking I was not good enough and a long time to have the self-belief and self-esteem to know I can compete in any arena."

Ms Hanley said the biggest challenge had been being promoted to management level as it was 'really difficult to compete' without having experience. But after putting herself forward for an opportunity no one else wanted to take she was able to demonstrate she could do well.

"Just take that opportunity, stick your head above the parapet and do something different."

Helena Bennett -

Chief Insp Bennett joined the police force after her parents told her to get a 'sensible job', moving to West Mercia from London, and now looks after safer neighbourhood policing for Redditch, Bromsgrove and Wyre Forest.

She told the audience at her level there were six women, with just three women in the three ranks above her.

But she said often women could be put off applying for top jobs because they felt they did not have the right attributes, saying a woman might tick nine out of ten boxes and not apply because they did not have the tenth, whereas a man might only have five but might have more confidence to attempt anyway.

"A lot less women have the confidence to take that step and say what have I got to lose? Don't spend your life sitting at the back saying I haven't quite got this and missing opportunities other people step up and do instead of you."

Chief Insp Bennett said competing against men did not mean women had to be 'macho or butch'. "Sometimes you have got to just be a little bit thick skinned and put up with things that people say which you shouldn't have to.

"But the core of you doesn't change. We are not just man replacements in skirts. Don't go changing because you think you're stepping into a male environment."

Tina O'Brian -

Ms O'Brian runs a company selling hip, knee and shoulder replacements based in Grosvenor House near the town centre.

She left school at 16 and became a nurse before training as a sales rep. While working she took a degree in business management and then approached a company in America with a business proposition.

She told the audience she had 'never had a problem' being a women, despite her industry being fairly male-dominated.

"I think women, if switched on, are streets ahead. They do have to be better than men but it is quite easy to be better because we are a lot more tenacious.

"Being feminine is our asset. Femininity has got so much weight behind it if you're graceful rather than being bullish."

Talking about challenging times in a career, she said there would always be times when the situation was unfair but people should have their 'tantrum behind closed doors' and only walk out if it was in their favour and would not damage their career.

Karen Drinkwater -

Mrs Drinkwater went to school at what is now Trinity High but did not intend to own her own business. After she married, she moved back to Redditch and started working as a packer, eventually working her way up to commercial development manager before setting up her business - JSC Rotational Ltd.

She said she was 'really against' the idea of a quota for the number of women on management boards.

"Instead of being there for their own skills and abilities some people might question am I here because I'm really good at what I do or am I here because I am making up the numbers because I happen to be female?

"If you work hard you deserve to be there whether you're a woman or not."

She added the challenges in her career had been stepping out of her comfort zone and pushing herself further.

"I could have so easily have taken an easy route and done an easier job where I didn't have to break out of my shell. You can't change yourself overnight. You learn to cope with embarrassing situations, challenging situations and people's attitudes and you look back ten years later and think you have grown so much through small individual challenges."

Karen Lumley -

The MP left school at 16, training as an accountant before setting up a geology company with husband Richard.

She got involved in politics to fight against a travellers' camp being built at the bottom of her garden, later moving to Redditch where she was on the borough council before becoming an MP in 2010.

Talking about all women shortlists, she said it was important to have women in Parliament but it should be made a place where more women wanted to go.

"At the moment you have got to be pretty tough. More than 50 per cent of people in the country are women and that's how we should be represented in everything."

Mrs Lumley added there were still people in politics who believed it was not a place for women so they needed thick skin to deal with comments.

"It's a question of perseverance, of never giving up. Small little steps get you on your way to your goal."

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