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  • Marianne Porter

Stevie Spring CBE - on tokenism and the danger of role models

Stevie Spring CBE is Chairman of the British Council, as well as the mental health charity Mind. Spring chaired Children In Need for a decade, and served three terms as Chairman of The Groundwork Federation. She has had an extensive career in business alongside her charity work, with previous roles as Chief Executive of Clear Channel and CEO of Future plc. She currently serves as a Non-Executive Director and Chairman of Remuneration for the Cooperative Group, and Chairs tech scale up, Kino-mono. She has been named both as one of the UK’s 100 most connected women by GQ and 500 most influential people in the Telegraph/Debretts list.

The first thing that strikes me about Spring is her frankness. She is not afraid to discuss the rampant sexism which plagued much of the start of her career, nor the instances which still continue to this day. The sheer number of horrifying examples which she can recall, as well as the indifference of various employers to such incidents is shocking. It is easy to forget how recent movements like MeToo have been instrumental in radically changing workplace environments and discourses. However, when I ask Spring about the biggest changes she has seen for women since the start of her career, her answer is clear: “At any level of seniority it was exceptional to be a woman, and by exceptional, I mean you were the exception.” This has changed and is changing. According to a recent article in the Guardian, the number of female FTSE 100 directors has increased by 50% in the last five years, and over a third of board positions in Britain’s top 350 companies are held by women. However, it’s hardly equality. As Spring points out, there are so few female CEOs of public companies “you can count them on your fingers”. Yet, she admits that she has used her exceptionality, as best she can, recounting: “Whenever I went for a meeting in the city, or on a roadshow, I would always wear a dress, a skirt and heels and sort of use the differential to get remembered and noticed and try and make a benefit out of it.” In such an assertion of her femininity, she has been able to avoid compromising her own identity in the male-dominated environments in which she has worked.

However, Spring initially had no intention of putting her hat into the ring when it came to the appointment of a new chairman at the British Council. As she explains, “I thought they were using me to tick a few boxes”. Yet, she asserts “that wasn’t just about me being a woman.” As she points out, there had been a prior female Chairman, Baroness Helena Kennedy. Instead her hesitancy “was about me being common. That was about me not having been to Oxbridge, about me having been brought up by a single parent. I had a view of the British council as being very establishment and I suspected they had already tapped a few people on the shoulder, who they really wanted to appoint.” It is a stark reminder that the prejudices experienced in the workforce extend far beyond the realms of gender identity.

It is clear that Spring is one to celebrate difference. On the day of our interview, it was announced she had been appointed to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion board of Pladis. She underlines the important point that the fight for equality is not one which only affects women, emphasising the importance of representation of all groups within society. As she puts it, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Yet, she raises an interesting point about the celebration of so-called exceptional figures and the danger of a constant emphasis on role models. “One of the problems with role models, is that when there are not many of them it’s very easy to look at someone like me and go - if that’s what I’ve got to do to get into a position of leadership, not get married, not have children, then I don’t want to play that game.” Instead of placing emphasis on a cardboard cutout of success and how to get there, by having “a range of people you can see of all races, genders, sexualities and abilities, you start to think: I could do that, or I could do it differently”.

She emphasises that “we should allow people to have a broader definition of success. No matter who you are, however successful you are, there is always someone who you could compare yourself to who is theoretically more successful.” Perhaps this also plays a part in our celebration of particular role models. Not only are there other paths to success, but other manifestations of success itself. Spring underlines this: “success is much broader than the financial corner-office success that has historically defined leadership”. She highlights that in defining success, “balance should be applauded and I don’t just mean the home-life question of do you have kids or not.” In fact, Spring argues that the term work-life balance is not one which really confronts the issue. “For people in leadership, on the whole, it’s just about balance. Your work and your life are inextricably linked.” Instead her definition of success centres around questions such as: “Are you contributing to your communities? Are you content? Do you like yourself?” For Spring, it is clear that this has manifested itself in her career working in charity which she has run concurrently with her more traditional corporate career. She urges us “to look at success in a much broader way”. When we do so, it is clear that extraordinary female leadership is everywhere.

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