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Behind the scenes: Women in Business NI

Pictured launching the International Business Women's Conference due to take place in May 2014 are (l-r): Kate Marshall, Women in Business NI; Kathryn Thomson, Northern Ireland Tourist Board (sponsor); Leona Loughran, Ulster Bank (sponsor); Tracy Meharg, Invest Northern Ireland (sponsor); Roseann Kelly, Women in Business NI and OFMDFM Junior Minister Jennifer McCann. Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrisons
Rebecca Kincade on January 10, 2014 - 7:30 am in Featured Interview, Interviews

It is 2014 and women remain the largest under-represented group when it comes to enterprise in the local economy. Rebecca Kincade sat down with Roseann Kelly, chief executive, Women in Business NI, ahead of their first international conference in May, to find out why this is still the case. 

Tell me about Women in Business NI:

We started 11 years ago at a time when there was a call for more women entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland. The organisation began as a voluntary committee, backed by Invest NI funding, helping women to make connections and network at organised events. Most of the women involved had their own business and could share their experience. Now that we are self-sustainable, we focus on delivering the best business network and support for our members. We have five or six events every month across Northern Ireland.

A recent article in The Telegraph said that women make up only one in four of the top earners in the UK. Why do you think this is?

The main barriers for gender equality in the work place are still around and we really need a change in the culture of organisations. We need to find an inclusive solution that will support this change and in order to do this we must engage both with men and women.

How do you think this cultural change should happen?

All of the terms used to describe career women aren’t overly complimentary. A successful woman might be called ‘headstrong’, where as a man in the same position would be a ‘go getter’. We need to see women supporting other women in order for this to happen. Women at the top shouldn’t be left in an isolated position. If they are perceived as ‘harsh’ it is because they have probably had to make great sacrifices in their life to succeed in business. Likewise, these women should be helping to pull through others on the career ladder by supporting and mentoring.

How has your network made a difference since you started out?

I believe that Northern Ireland has always had an informal ‘old boys club’, where a grouping of senior business men would communicate and talk, highlight forthcoming opportunities and encourage career progression. This is a powerful tool. Now we are seeing that there is a grouping of senior business women who can lift the phone to each other, and this is a positive step to enable more women to come through to a higher level.

Do you think women are more likely to achieve business success in Northern Ireland by setting up their own company rather than climbing the corporate ladder?

I think when it comes to identifying opportunities in the corporate world in Northern Ireland there aren’t many for men or for women. We need to grow our private sector and this can happen with more women launching their own business ideas. There are advantages to starting out on your own, but that doesn’t mean to say that it is easy. When we started out we were arranging events purely for sole traders. Our members now are around 45% self-employed to 55% employed so it is a fairly even split of women who are successful in the business world in both capacities.

How do you respond to people who think that you are a feminist organisation?

We know that we have to work to change these attitudes. Yes we do support women but we don’t exclude men. On our board of ten people, we have three men. We also frequently have male speakers at our events. We know that diversity is good for productivity and the statistics are out there to prove it. This is the message that we are trying to share. We want to create a new economy based on growth and stability and we must engage with men in order to achieve this.

What can we expect from your conference in May?

We are looking forward to welcoming international delegates from around the world and sharing a global perspective on business. With high profile international keynote speakers, panel sessions and business workshops, we will explore universally relevant issues. Secured speakers to date include Lucy Gaffney, chair of Communicorp Group, Julie Meyer of Ariadne Capital and Dr Anita Sands, former group managing director of UBS and member of the Global Irish Network. We have also invited Former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as our key note speaker.

Why do you feel that a conference of this nature is needed?

This conference is our way of practicing what we preach to our members. It is an example of what businesses need to be doing at the moment – looking outside Northern Ireland and being ambitious with their ideas. Stemming from the conference, we will support and encourage mutually beneficial, long-term business partnerships and a series of trade missions to further enhance these.

The International Business Women’s Conference - ‘Creating a New Economy’ (IBWC 2014) will bring delegates from across the globe to join Irish business women for this event from the 12th – 15th May. A special early bird booking rate is available until the end of January. For further information, and to register interest for the event, please visit: www.ibwc2014.com


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