IWD 2021: Business Durham's Sarah Slaven on getting more women into STEM and embracing uncertainty
For International Women’s Day 2021, Bdaily reached out to a range of female business leaders from across our key regions to share how their experience of the pandemic has shaped their passion for gender equality.
Sarah Slaven is the interim managing director of Business Durham, and has worked throughout the pandemic to support the survival and growth of businesses across County Durham.
Sarah spoke to Bdaily about the ‘blurred lines’ of home-working, the rise in female-led businesses and supporting women in tech.
As a woman, how have you personally adapted during the pandemic, and what challenges have you faced?
“We have all had to adapt to the changes caused by the pandemic, but fortunately technology has enabled us to adapt quickly and to continue to provide a service.
“The challenge I, and the many other women I speak to professionally, have found is maintaining a good work-life balance.
“There is a sense of blurring the lines of separation between the working day and homelife, especially moving from the laptop in the bedroom down to the kitchen in a matter of seconds.
“It has become more difficult to take a break and there is always the temptation to pick up the phone or go back to the laptop for that quick check of the emails.
“I do miss the interaction with my colleagues, those quick hellos and chats as we arrive in the office. Networking with businesses, partners and a whole array of others that is a key part of my working day not to mention putting on my ‘work clothes’. I sometimes feel it can be harder being my professional self whilst working at home.
“Working full-time whilst also having school-age children at home has also been a challenge – I have been able to share the load with my husband but I am conscious that it has been particularly challenging for those that are single parents.
“That said, the intensity of the work, the support businesses have needed and the way we have all risen to the challenge has inspired me to do more and encourage others to provide the best possible service we can.”
How have you and your business supported women during the past year?
“As a leader, it is my responsibility to ensure all our staff are supported and able to do their jobs.
“The majority of the team are women, probably about 80 per cent, and despite the advances that have been made in recent years, the responsibility for caring in families still tends to fall disproportionately on women.
“Homeschooling and child care particularly for our single parents, and balancing our children’s needs whilst taking part in online meetings is not easy!
“At the other end of the age range, we have those with caring responsibilities for our elderly relatives, particularly those who have had to self-isolate.
“We have been supportive and recognise those challenges. We know that a 9 to 5 working day may not be possible and have ensured our staff know that they can make use of our flexible approach to working patterns, so that we do what we can to enable our staff to balance the needs of home-life and work-life.
“We have continued to support businesses across County Durham during the pandemic. Adapting our own support programmes in response to the changing needs of business, for example using Digital Drive to provide quick solutions to companies needing to adopt technology as a result of the pandemic.
“In addition to the direct support we offer, we have worked to ensure businesses know where to access the wide variety of support available to help them through the challenges of Covid, and we produced a guide to business support to help companies be able to quickly find the best solutions for them.
“Earlier this year we also launched a £5m Business Recovery Grant to help businesses in looking forward and meeting the challenge of recovery – [we are] seeing plenty of female led businesses coming forward for support from this fund.”
What opportunities do you feel that the pandemic has created for women, if any?
“From my perspective I think the pandemic has helped to reduce some of the barriers that women can sometimes face in the workplace in getting access to senior people in organisations and building relationships.
“With most people working from home during lockdown, there has been a sense of having a more personal interaction via Teams calls – seeing people in their home environment and appreciating the day-to-day life challenges – kids, pets, parcels being delivered etc – that we all face, whether male or female.
“A more person-centred way of doing business, whilst still being professional, which I personally think bodes well for the future – people do business with people and opportunities to build relationships and have a shared understanding of the pressures we all have to juggle.
“For many women that used to find juggling work and school runs etc a challenge, then more flexibility in the workplace and being able to work from home has been a real positive and should be empowering for the future – we’ve demonstrated that the job can still be done just as well from home, so should pave the way for more flexible ways of working in the future.
“Every crisis also brings opportunities for new businesses funding solutions, and women are well placed to identify and lead these. Many people have found themselves in a position they did not expect to as a result of furlough or redundancy.
“Some of these people will have a new focus and may be looking to set up their own business.
“We have a number of programmes to support people with a burning desire to start a business and indeed launched Durham Ambitious Business Start-ups programme last summer during the pandemic to do just that.
“Alongside Durham City Incubator, Durham Future Innovation Building Programme and the Durham Business Opportunities Programme we are supporting many new and fledgling entrepreneurs.”
In your opinion, has the pandemic highlighted any gender imbalances in business?
“Despite the steps forward that have been made so far, the pandemic has highlighted that a large share of the childcare, home-schooling and caring responsibilities still fall to women, who have been really stretched trying to manage these responsibilities as well as work, particularly those in single parent households.
“We’re starting to see emerging evidence that the pandemic has affected women’s employment more than men, due to the nature of the sectors that have been more affected tending to be those where women are over-represented.”
As we step into a post-pandemic business landscape, how do you think women’s roles in business may change?
“We are working with businesses to survive and thrive following the pandemic which in turn will offer women more and better opportunities in County Durham.
“As well as helping entrepreneurs to set up on their own our established companies offer women varied opportunities. We recently highlighted 19 women working in science at North East Technology Park near Sedgefield.
“We want to encourage more women to consider a career in STEM occupations, many of the businesses which have thrived under the pandemic require skills around technology and science, so we must do our bit to encourage more young women to consider them as a career path to ensure they are at the forefront of technological advancement and the jobs of the future.”
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