woman giving presentation

Denise Friend, Chartered Accountant, Corporate Financier, mother, and founder of Friend Partnership, assesses whether it is realistic for women to truly “Have it all”.

Regardless of gender, if you want to rise to the top in business, then you can’t have any impediments.

I appreciate this might not be the most fashionable view, but, after more than 30 years of leading a successful business, advising high growth companies, I am firmly of the mind that career success means singular focus.

Trying to claim, as we see and hear in the media, that special rules should apply to women, will just not wash.

I learnt that the hard way many years ago.  As a child of the 1950’s, there were not many role models of women running businesses.  I had a world class primary and secondary  state education in Liverpool, followed by a degree from London School of Economics, which at the time, was a world class University. I started work at Price Waterhouse in London, in a graduate intake of 10 women and 130 men.  That was the way it was then and was probably reflective of the percentage of women who actually wanted to go into the profession at that time.  How things have changed.

Denise Friend

Denise Friend, founder and corporate finance partner at Friend Partnership Ltd.

Within Price Waterhouse there was no prejudice against women.  The starting salary was based on the class of degree you had obtained.  After that, salaries rose according to one’s ability, effort and attainment, nothing else mattered.  It was a high achieving environment, but we were all treated equally.

I then went to 3i, at the time the country’s only private equity firm, as an investment controller making investments into private companies.  At my interview, at age 28, I was asked the question “do you want to have children”?  Not something that any employer could ask today (although the banks seem to think they have a right to ask for mortgage purposes)!  I answered truthfully, “yes of course I do”.  I got the job.  3i recruited purely on merit.

There were very few women in the organisation, but I felt there was certainly no prejudice against us – and there were no instances where a prospective investee company asked to deal with a man rather than with me.

I had my first child two years after joining 3i and, despite fantastically generous maternity leave arrangements, I decided it was not possible to do the job that I was doing with a young family.  It was not a matter of flexibility from my employers, I suspect they would have been receptive and supportive, but certain jobs, and corporate finance is indeed one of them, can  – be all consuming for large periods of time, and not conducive to family life.

Herein lies the rub. From a business perspective, how employers support employees’ family lives, from maternity leave to flexible and agile working, is greatly discussed, but little leads with exploring the thorny issue of what is best for the children, particularly babies.

Something has to give.  I say that from the perspective of someone who did not want to be a stay-at-home mother and had not until the point I had children, thought of a career outside a large financial institution.

With the encouragement of a company I had invested in at 3i, I decided to set-up a Chartered Accountancy and Business Advisory firm. This company became my first client.  I certainly worked as hard as I ever had, but I worked differently, and was only answerable to my clients and myself.  I had no ‘boss’, which made life with young children easier.

A year or so later, I had my second child, who was a premature baby.  Like so many women who have their own business, there is no such thing as winding down before the baby came, so I was in the middle of a work project.  My clients were very sympathetic, but only to a point, they still needed their work to be done.  I then understood very clearly that one’s own domestic arrangements or unexpected dramas cannot impact on business.  My problems could not rebound on my client.

This fact is something I think the debate about women in business ignores.  The impact of flexible arrangements or extended maternity leave puts tremendous strain on other people.  Large private businesses and the public sector are very alike in that they generally have the resources to cover the disruption; a small business simply does not have these resources.

I was fortunate.  Unlike many women who have no option but to entrust their babies to nurseries or childminders, I did have appropriate support for my children that enabled me to develop my business, but I could not work in the all-consuming way that high flying jobs demand.  That would have meant virtually never seeing my children, and why have children if that is the case?

Career success and family life were both achieved but I had to take a different route – there was a tradeoff.

As a woman in business and an adviser to entrepreneurs I believe we need to be realistic about what we can achieve and when we can achieve it.

Yes, we quite possibly can have it all – but not all at the same time.

Now that my children are grown up I find myself working harder than ever before and I am able to put both my life and business experience to very good use.  It’s just not me be to be a ‘lady who lunches’.  I can shop with the best of them but not all the time!  Nor indeed do I want to be a stay at home grandmother.

But it is this agenda that is being skewed by the media.

Personally, I do not believe anyone should or should be differentiated on the grounds of gender, race or religion.  I disliked women in business groups because I felt that real business issues were not being debated and I had little interest in aromatherapy or yoga. I had my children to get home to.

My experience gained very early on is that, in business, the best employers certainly care about the wellbeing of their people and will always support them through times of loss or personal tragedy, but ultimately what they are most interested in, is business.  A good employer creates a good working environment for all staff because that is good business, but if one part of the workforce demands more, it creates pressures and tensions amongst and for others.

To succeed in business, you need to have focus, keep your head down and deliver on your plans.  Don’t expect others to bend to you.  That will not work in the longer term.

Above all, be realistic: if you have children, your life changes.  It may take you longer to achieve what you believe you are capable of, but life is a long game.

A very senior investment banker once said to me that women graduates are so much more mature and well-presented than male graduates, which actually makes it quite difficult to make a decision to employ any men.  It is fair to say that middle aged women are probably the best employees of all, in large part because of their ability to balance business and personal life.

So, with that wisdom in mind, I would say to employers only employ the best person for the job – even if that means that you do sometimes have to employ a man!

Denise Friend is a founder and head of corporate finance advisory at Friend Partnership Limited, and works predominantly with business owners, owner managed business and entreprenuers.

Since Friend Partnership Limited was established as a corporate finance boutique in 1983, it has grown into a well-respected Chartered Accountancy practice offering a full range of business advisory, accountancy and taxation advice and support services. It works principally with privately owned businesses operating nationally and internationally in a variety of sectors including manufacturing, technology, renewable energy, distribution, retail and construction, and range from entrepreneurial start-ups to well-established businesses. For more information: www.friendpartnership.com