When Ruby McGregor-Smith became the first-ever Asian female chief executive of a FTSE 250 company, she used the media attention that surrounded her appointment to raise awareness about women’s workplace struggles.
McGregor-Smith qualified as an accountant more than twenty years ago. However, she made up her mind was very quickly not to spend her entire career in an accounting firm.
She joined outsourcing company Serco, more than over 20 years ago and hasn’t looked back since.
“At Serco I did a number of financial and commercial roles as well as MD roles,” she says. I joined Mitie, the outsourcing and energy services company, in 2002 as the chief financial officer, then became chief operating officer three years later and took over as CEO in 2007.
Her appointment as the first-ever Asian female chief executive of a FTSE 250 company sparked a media frenzy which highlighted her race and gender.
“It came as quite a shock at the beginning,” she says. “I didn’t see myself as newsworthy simply because of my race or gender. But then I realised it was an opportunity – to raise awareness and support for other women, to make things better for the next generation so our children do not face similar barriers and to ensure women can have choices at every stage of their lives.
Since taking on her role as CEO at Mitie, McGregor-Smith has made it a personal obligation to use her position to support other women, particularly those with children, who wish to work.
“As a working mother with two children, I know the challenges that come with balancing a career and family. I think the biggest challenge of my career was the adjustment I needed to make when I first had my children.
“Most businesses are in favour of flexible working but need guidance to do so.”
Mitie’s HR agenda promotes diversity in recruitment, and retaining and rewarding the best people for the job, regardless of their background.
The company has signed on to dozens of initiatives, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Working Forward programme, the Scottish Government’s Partnership for Change policy, and the national Inspiring Women campaign, to ensure it fulfils its diversity ambitions.
McGregor-Smith says: “My priorities are to grow Mitie and to provide opportunities for all of our people. In addition, I want to have an impact on the way that people from a BME background and women are able to develop their careers in the UK.
“Being a people business, our biggest challenge is always making sure we have the right people to support our businesses as we grow.”
Internally the company introduced board-level targets around gender diversity and it continues to use it group-wide network, Engender, to promote gender quality.
“I would like to see employers give employment contracts that reflect the job itself – rather than where and what is done – and avoiding terms that can be misleading such as ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’,” McGregor-Smith says.
“I think all women would like to ensure they work somewhere that understands and supports them as their lives change – especially when they have young children.
“That means flexibility is really important, and that companies need strong, visible investment in women to ensure that our organisations and economy survive in today’s marketplace.
“I fully respect the choice of parents to stay at home with their families, but those who do wish to return to their career should be able to do so and have the opportunities they deserve.
One of her many commitments, McGregor-Smith chairs the Women’s Business Council, which last year launched a report with detailed recommendations to help boost women’s roles in the UK economy.
She said: “I know the challenges faced in balancing a leadership role and family life, and I want to make a difference and to ensure our children do not face the same barriers I faced.”
“If we could also improve the affordability of childcare and offer more flexible maternity leave options, I think the next generations of mums will be in a significantly better position, as will our economy – benefitting from unleashing women’s full potential in the workforce.”
With a motivation to inspire self-confidence in others, McGregor-Smith mentors female colleagues at Mitie, she speaks at events such as the National Outsourcing Organisation’s Women in Outsourcing and FT’s Women at the Top day and; promotes empathetic leadership.
She says: “I believe that being more emotionally connected with your people means you’ll have a more effective and efficient team and business.
“Equally I make sure I attend and speak at events around the UK – I always make time for Speakers for Schools so that I can take time out to encourage schoolgirls to believe that they can achieve anything.
“I’m very optimistic about the future for women in corporate Britain. I think a lot of progress has been made, but that much more can be done.
“I am passionate about making sure obstacles for women to work at different stages of their careers are removed.
“It’s about unblocking the talent pipeline that has for so long restricted women from reaching the most senior levels in business. UK business has a hugely important role to play in achieving this.”
Ruby McGregor-Smith won the First Women Lifetime Achievement Award. Do you know any exceptional women like Ruby? Nominate them now for a First Women Award.