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Can You Have It All?

The topic for the Queen’s women’s network event in early October at Freshfields’ offices in London was “Can you have it all? Women’s transition to leadership”. Around 70 women from all four decades of Queenswomen signed up, showing a high level of interest in the topic.

The scene was set by Old Member and executive coach, Janet Hayes (Modern Languages, 1981), now of Necton Consulting – Potential in People. Janet shared the findings from her Henley Business School MSc dissertation research and was followed by a panel of leaders discussing the findings and answering questions on women in leadership.

The panel was facilitated by Alison Sanders, née Spargo (PPE, 1979). Members were Caroline Stroud, Partner - People & Reward from Freshfields; Nishi Somaiya (PPE, 1998), European Head and Global Chief Operating Officer of Growth Equity strategy at Goldman Sachs; April Burt (Environmental Research, 2017), Project Leader of the Aldabra Clean-Up Project, a postgraduate student at Queen’s, and Janet.

Janet began by highlighting some statistics. Despite decades-old legislation on equal rights and pay for women and organisational focus on equal opportunities for women, women are still significantly under-represented at senior levels in organisations. In large professional services firms, where Janet focused her research, fewer than 20% of partners are women (2017 data). However, in 2018, McKinsey’s researchers found that companies in the top 25% for gender diversity in their executive team were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. Of course, having fewer female leaders has a detrimental effect on overall gender pay gaps.

The women leaders interviewed by Janet identified various closely interlinked influences from all stages of their careers that affected their choices in their transition to leader. These included other people, organisation and family structures, and personal characteristics and their subjective perspectives.

How these influences worked dynamically together was key to the women’s identities. Their earlier experiences were crucial, their value being supported by cumulative advantage theory which maintains that a small advantage compounds over time into an ever-greater advantage[1]. Having early leadership responsibility seemed to play a key role in building individuals’ sense of self-efficacy, which in turn fostered adaptability and resilience. Neuroscience supports this finding by maintaining that early leadership responsibility prepares and inspires young adults to assume leadership roles[2].

On having it all, Janet’s interviews with women leaders revealed that individuals have their own version of what “all” means. Some saw “all” as being able to throw themselves into work without other distractions, but others viewed it as balancing work and family identities.

The panel were then invited to share their views of “having it all” in their respective fields, before responding to many challenging questions and sharing advice with the audience. It emerged that every person is different, but there are company policies, as well as life choices, which can facilitate the juggling of women’s identities. It was recognised that women should work together to effect change, but men also need to be involved too, often as sponsors of women or, frequently in Janet’s research, in the form of supportive peers. Working with these enlightened peers is one way that this change will happen, including organisations placing more reliance on female values and definitions of success.

Thank you to Caroline, Nishi, April and Janet for being so open and insightful during the session.


[1] Dannefer, D. (2003). Cumulative advantage/disadvantage and the life course: Cross-fertilizing age and social science theory. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences58(6), S327-S337.

[2] Riddell, P. M. (2017). Reward and threat in the adolescent brain: implications for leadership development. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 38(4), 530-548.


By Janet Hayes (Modern Languages, 1981)