University of Birmingham promotes female leadership in business

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A new centre aims to increase how inclusion and diversity transform national enterprises

According to figures from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, women account for about 20 per cent of the UK’s 4.8 million enterprises and 30 per cent of the UK’s self-employed population, collectively contributing an estimated £70 billion to the British economy. In that context, the establishment in September 2018 of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Women’s Enterprise, Leadership, Economy & Diversity (WE-LEAD) is timely indeed. 

The centre’s director, Professor Kiran Trehan, says that women’s leadership in business has become “an increasingly topical agenda”, with a focus on women’s enterprise and the diversity of company board members. However, Professor Trehan acknowledges that there is still a “gap” when it comes to women heading up large-scale enterprises.

Professor Trehan, who is also the vice-president at the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) and the holder of a number of national advisory roles in the leadership and diversity area, describes the centre’s mission statement as: “making inclusive leadership everybody’s business through pioneering research and engagement” and “raising its visibility in a more positive narrative about women’s leadership and diversity”.

Sitting within the University of Birmingham’s business school, the centre has an interdisciplinary approach, liaising with the College of Social Sciences, the Enterprise Innovation Hub and across faculties. It also draws on a network of industrial entrepreneurs and experts. 

The centre is working in a number of specialist research areas, such as family businesses as communities of practice, women in family food and agriculture, and migrant women and the power of transitional enterprise.

Professor Trehan explains that the latter area involves looking at “how they [female migrants] transform national enterprises, why they set up business and what it means for social mobility. These are stories that don’t get talked about, yet they have made a significant contribution and their experience will help us suggest how policies supporting business can be applied in the future.”

Some of this work has involved peer-to-peer mentoring, an area that is also featured in the Leaders Like You initiative via the West Midlands Combined Authority and the office of the mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street. Professor Trehan, who is one of the commissioners, says that the aim of the initiative is “to get a large number of organisations in the region to rethink leadership and diversity polices and develop the next generation of leaders”. 

While more than 1,000 pledges from public and private sector organisations have yet to be evaluated, peer-to-peer mentoring, where organisations can learn from one another’s position in the supply chain and recruitment approaches, has emerged as a strong theme. As is reverse-mentoring, where senior decision makers are informed about what it is like to be further down the chain of command.

In another venture, the centre has partnered with Nasdaq to raise awareness about female-led enterprise “in areas it is not normally associated with, for example in engineering or innovation-based firms”.

Summing up the message behind this and other ventures, Professor Trehan says: “It’s not always about access to finance and to markets, it is about the uniqueness and distinctiveness that women bring to leadership.”

Professor Kiran Trehan is a participant in the upcoming HSBC UK and Times Higher Education roundtable discussion “What action do we need to take to ensure every voice is represented at a senior level?” with Fiona Daniel (Head of Diversity and Inclusion, HSBC UK).

Brought to you in conjunction with HSBC. Find out more about HSBC’s education team.