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Aspiring Women conference

19 December 2014
Aspiring Women conference

Corbin & King, which operates some of London's most iconic restaurants alongside its recent hotel launch, the Beaumont, hosted a female-only conference last month for its employees to air the perennial industry issues such as gender equality, work-life balance, and career advancement. Hannah Thompson attended

While the number of women in senior roles has been improving in recent years, particularly in traditional male bastions such as the City, gender imbalance still continues to blight many industries, not least hospitality.

Her motivation - and ambition - is to increase the number of women within the organisation, which currently stands at approximately 30%.

Fennell pulled together a working group that included many successful women from the sector (see speakers panel) including Gillian Thomson, chief operating officer of ACT Clean (formerly head of global operations for the Gordon Ramsay Group) as well as general manager at the Wolseley, Ben Matthews.

The group devised a survey that was sent out to Corbin & King employees earlier this year, and the responses helped to shape the content for the conference, entitled Aspiring Women, which was held last month at Crazy Coqs cabaret bar at Brasserie Zédel in Soho.

It set out to address issues such as 'can women have it all?', how to balance family and a career, empowering women, the power of body language and voice techniques, how women can help to close the gender gap, and, finally, a view from the top - an interview with Fennell.

Speaking to The Caterer last month, Fennell said: "The proportion of women to men across the company has fluctuated over the years, but it's going in the wrong direction now without a doubt.

"I think part of that is because of our high staff retention. There's probably an older workforce in our business than some others because they tend to stay with us much longer; consequently a lot of our middle management women are all going off and having children and not returning to the workforce, and we needed to understand why."

Struck by the many senior male faces that surrounded her in her role at Corbin & King, she started to probe to find out why women had not been selected for certain management roles within the broader business. She was alarmed by some of the replies, which clearly indicated that many of the middle management men in the business were uncomfortable with the different management styles and demands of female colleagues. She felt compelled to tackle this head on and make a difference.

Fennell said: "My reaction was that this is just outrageous in this day and age, and if we don't do something about this now, these outdated attitudes will keep perpetuating themselves.

"I wake up every day and I pinch myself at how lucky I have been, that I had two gentlemen who believed in me 100% and gave me the opportunities they did - I thought actually it's time for me to do this for other people now.

"And that was the trigger for why I wanted Zuleika Fennell to do the conference," she added.

Key seminar points

Below are key extracts from the private seminar for Corbin & King employees, but you can learn more in the New Year about Zuleika Fennell's personal journey when she is featured in The Caterer 13 February 2015 issue.

1 Believe in yourself

"I wasn't sure that I could do my job before I took it. I just kept feeling that I was faking it, and hoping that people would never find out. But nothing I've ever been scared of has been as bad as I thought. Don't think of reasons why you can't do something; think of why you can." Zuleika Fennell

"I've always struggled with confidence. I've spent the last 20 or so years waiting to be found out, but I don't know whether that's down to my insecurities as a woman - men just seem to display more bravado than women. I've always preferred to under-promise and over-deliver." Amanda Afiya

2 Find a mentor

"Find a mentor. It's what happens to us on our journey in life and the choices we make that allow us to be the people we are." Jane Sunley

"I think women have a responsibility to look after other women. It's great to have someone who will fight for you, and encourage you into new jobs and positions." Zuleika Fennell

3 Build up a give and take systemat work

"You never know when you might need the company's support and flexibility. When my husband was seriously ill five years ago that was the closest I've come to quitting my job. But as I had 'credits' built up through all those previous years of hard work, I found I was given a free rein for compassionate leave, far more than I was contractually allowed." Amanda Afiya

"I wasn't ready to have kids at 25, so maybe I banked more of my 'credits' at work then. But then I needed those credits later on, when I felt ready. You figure out ways to make stuff work." Tracey Matthews

"I wish I had strengthened my belief in myself earlier on. If I had laid my groundwork earlier, maybe I would have been a bit further in my career, and probably had a bit more flexibility when I did have my kids." Michelle Hunt

"It's about being honest. Sometimes it is OK to just want to go home and be with your children or have fun. Be a little more selfish on occasion, but also be honest with your employer and stick to your commitments. If you're good at what you do, that's OK." Tracey Matthews

4 Surround yourself with a support network

"There's always this assumption that the mum has to do most of the juggling. But actually, my husband prefers it. And I am demanding of him. It's a shared responsibility. In Corbin & King we plan our rotas around both men and women who have children." Ninoska Leppard

"I couldn't have got through those early years without having a large and extensive support network - my mum and dad, friends, neighbours. Surround yourself with people who can support you mentally and give you the encouragement you need. At times, women can be fragile, emotional souls. There are times when you will feel completely overwhelmed, that you're a bad parent, daughter, friend, employee, but it will be a blip and you will come through it. You'll need good, honest friends and colleagues to point out what's right and wrong and give you the support and perspective to get you back on the straight and narrow." Amanda Afiya

"There are two of you in a relationship that decided to have a child. I see it too often when the woman's work is the one that suffers. That flexibility has to happen on both sides." Zuleika Fennell

"I make a real effort to maintain friendships that are important to me, outside my family and work. That's what keeps me sane, seeing those people that bring out the real me, as opposed to me being a mum, or the working me. And I don't feel guilty." Ninoska Leppard

5 No more tears

"If you haven't cried at work yet, you will. I'd be surprised if anyone can go through a lifetime in the workplace and not feel overwhelmed by life at some point. What's important is that you handle it with dignity. Go to the bathroom; throw water over your face and get back in there." Amanda Afiya

"Take a deep breath and get yourself in control before you respond. And don't think that because you're a woman, you have to cry or break down all the time. I know plenty of men who are more emotional!" Jane Sunley

"It's important to toughen up and develop a society where women can be pregnant and be at work. But equally, other women who are not pregnant are not there to carry the burden. You've got to crack on." Tracey Matthews

6 Stand up for yourself

"Speaking with conviction can make people take you more seriously. Fake it till you make it, and choose to be as assertive as men - for example, when it comes to asking for pay rises." Jane Sunley

"Dress and behave for the job you want. Even if you have to wear a uniform, wear it better. What do you want people to know about you? How do you want people to describe you when you're not there? Do that." Jodi Goldman

"You've got to be authentic. I can't pretend to be something I'm not. If I feel myself getting choked up over, say, an awards ceremony, I do that. That's just me." Zuleika Fennell

7 Learn from your mistakes

"It's OK to make a mistake, but don't focus on the emotional side, or tell yourself you're useless. Instead, acknowledge what happened, your responsibility in it, take advice, find a solution, and move on." Jane Sunley

"I always say to everyone: it's good to care. If you're working in a restaurant and a guest doesn't have a good time, and that doesn't hurt you, then you're in the wrong job." Ben Matthews

8 Consider people as individuals, not on a gender basis

"For me, [managing people is] a question of individuals, not gender. You have to find the best way to get things out of people." Carrie Wicks

"I don't agree with quotas, as they're just about meeting numbers. It's much more about recognising the talents of the women that you've already got, and dragging them up into the right positions. There are so many opportunities within hospitality." Zuleika Fennell

9 Work to your strengths and use negatives to push you on

"I encountered sexism from the very beginning. After my training, I was asked if I wanted to go into housekeeping, and I said, no, I want to run something. And they said, no darling, you leave that to the men. But it only made me more determined." Carrie Wicks

"Use any negativity that you encounter to galvanise yourself. Often male chefs say that having women in the kitchen makes it a nicer place, because it stops men from talking about football and boobs. But why not look at women's own skill sets? Chefs saying that that's a woman's main value really devalues their own ability." Sophie Michell

"I want everyone to have equal opportunities and believe that they can do it. I'm annoyed that gender inequality is still prevalent in our industry at all. I'd like to see 50% of head chefs in our company be women, and on the board." Zuleika Fennell

10 Don't be afraid of trying new jobs and skills

"Bounce around departments, and keep trying jobs on for size until you find one that fits. That's what I did. Play to your strengths, and do what you enjoy, not what you think you should do." Zuleika Fennell

"I knew I couldn't have it all, so I was honest with my employer, and relinquished some pay and responsibilities to look after my children, and then came back. You mustn't feel bad about stepping off the ladder - whether that's children, going travelling, or something else." Ninoska Leppard

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