Tanya Castell, CEO, Changing The Chemistry

Tanya CastellTanya founded Changing The Chemistry, a national charity working to improve diversity of thought within boards across the public, private and third sectors in Scotland and beyond. She currently holds a portfolio of non-executive director positions, following a highly successful career in risk management with senior management roles at multi-national institutions including UBS and Lloyds.

It’s very interesting to think about Breaking the Mould in the context of boardrooms, where we’re told that women [with the right skills] aren’t there and then you read this publication. There are some amazing women, doing amazing things and people just aren’t aware of, and don’t necessarily value, those skills. These skills can be very valuable in a boardroom but the people haven’t necessarily been CEOs or Finance Directors as they decided to spend their lives doing something different. Or they didn’t aspire to those roles, didn’t know the options were there, didn’t have any access or, for some, weren’t allowed to work when they were married. There’s all sorts of issues, it’s incredible. Some of the stories go back a long way so, in terms of timeframe, it’s better now but not good enough.

My non-executive career started in earnest in 2011 and, when I realised that I needed to network with lots of people, I went to an event in Edinburgh called ‘Inspiring Women Leaders…Dare We?’.  Towards the end of the day, we gathered in groups based on what actions we wanted to take (I was focused on the boardroom) and the collective feedback was to be sent out to the participants afterwards. When I hadn’t heard anything, I thought I would do something about it, so I contacted the women from the event in my group and a few others, invited them together for lunch and we started discussing what we wanted to achieve in relation to boards. Somebody suggested that we focus on quotas for women on boards but we didn’t think that was what we cared about. We agreed it wasn’t about quotas, but what we wanted, post financial crisis, was for boards to make better decisions and therefore it’s not really even about gender diversity; what it is about is diversity of thought, we want people to make better decisions. And that’s what we decided we wanted to achieve.

Changing the Chemistry began to work towards developing our members, supporting our members, helping them go for the roles and encouraging them, because it has never occurred to lots of people to go for a board role. At the start of 2012, when there were just 20 of us with 8 wanting board roles, we set a target to fill 8 board roles by the middle of 2013, giving ourselves 18 months because we were all new to the process. We worked with people to help prepare their non-exec CVs and we started running mock interview panels. Also, people came to talk about their experiences of being on boards. By the middle of 2013 we’d actually filled 12 roles, 50% more than we had targeted. At this point we realised that what we had was a peer support network.

Our statistics are a bit rough and ready because we rely on people to tell us but we know that our members have secured about 70 positions in a range of roles in small charities, big charities, public sector boards and companies, up to FTSE 250. In the work we did with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), when they were looking to diversify their board, we ran an event in May last year to encourage women to consider board roles. We had 55 people attend and another 15 participated online and we had great feedback. HIE have since appointed four new board members, three of whom are female and members of Changing the Chemistry. For Visit Scotland, an event designed to attract diverse candidates was run at very short notice and in two and a half weeks we had 80 people sign up. We also ran workshops to help people with the application form. Applications by women went from 28% of the total at the previous round to 63%. It was another public sector success and, of the five people VisitScotland appointed, four were women and three of them had engaged with Changing the Chemistry in some way.

Women aren’t very good at selling themselves – I’m generalising massively – but we become uncomfortable, we’re taught that it’s boastful. A number of our members have a real discomfort when it comes to turning their CV around for non-exec work. I showed my CV to a head hunter once, which included ‘School Governor’ from a time when I was brought in to help a struggling school in East Hackney. I had naturally just put ‘school’ but he told me to elaborate because it was actually a ‘turnaround situation’. It’s much more personal when you’re doing non-exec roles because it’s not about what you’ve done, but what you have learnt from your experiences and what personal skills you can bring to the boardroom, be it corporate governance, persuasion, risk management or any other capabilities. Saying ‘this is what I’m really good at’ is different to ‘this is what I’ve done’.

Losing my right peripheral vision recently was annoying but I think having depression affected me more and ultimately made me much more resilient. Recently, I have been wondering if the reason I care so much about changing the workplace is because of what happened to me. I only realised that I had depression in 2010 but when I look back and having done more research, I identified that it was actually triggered back in 2005 with the 7/7 bombings. On the day it happened, I was in charge of the safety of all the staff in Risk. Our office was next to Liverpool Street Station and we were evacuated. When I got home I watched the footage on TV because during the day, whilst managing the incident, we had been shut off from pictures which made it rather surreal. It took me a while to realise but from that date I had a tendency to become tearful, which I guess is some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then it was controllable, I could stop myself from crying so it wasn’t a problem and I didn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t until the situation was so bad, caused by pressure at work, that if somebody talked to me, about me, I started crying and then it became obvious there was a problem. A combination of exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy along with great support from family and friends helped me recover.

I think unconscious bias is a major barrier. When we’re talking about the strategy of Changing the Chemistry now, a large part of this is influencing others around both the supply and the demand side of boardroom recruitment. The supply is there; the candidates aren’t necessarily ex- CEOs or ex-FDs but there are lots of very capable women. We need to help the demand side understand that women are as good and that they can do the roles. Chairmen and other male non-execs say to me that it’s important that they have the best person for the job, and I agree – but it isn’t a meritocracy. If it was a meritocracy, there would be many more women on boards already, but they’re not there. Thinking about unconscious bias, research shows that when faced with the same CV, both men and women are more likely to choose the one with a man’s name on the front rather than a woman’s. It’s quite scary. The situation is similar with names indicating different ethnicity or culture.

Because there are so many people looking at diversity topics, particularly the women on boards issue, I’m keen to work in a collaborative way. For the Highlands and Islands events I suggested that Women on Boards was involved and also the Institute of Directors because I realised these were other forms of support for people that want to a board role. Since I met Fiona Hathorn – Managing Director of Women on Boards – in a queue once, I have thought that our organisations are complementary. They’re great because they work across the UK and have a more mass market model but although I saw a reason for focusing on women at a general level, at the same time I felt there was a place for Changing the Chemistry because we are about diversity of thought (not just gender but also other aspects of diversity such as ethnicity) and the support we offer is more bespoke, more about helping individuals as a peer support network.

I read a really interesting article by Herminia Ibarrain Harvard Business Review. She asks are women ambitious? And responds that yes, they are ambitious but they’re working in a world designed by men, for men who have carers at home, but that doesn’t work for women. When working in the City, there were times when on work trips the men would talk about football and then go off to strip joints, and the women stayed behind. It was very excluding but it was easier to accept it. When I decided to leave the company though, some female colleagues told me they were sad because they wouldn’t have me as a role model. That hadn’t even occurred to me. Now, with Changing the Chemistry there are people I would pick up the phone to if there was something bothering me, there is a network we can leverage.

The challenge for Changing the Chemistry is to maintain what we have as we grow, and that’s hard as a peer support network. We are looking to change the structure to help make that work but I feel very strongly about not charging a membership fee because the sense of all being in it together and pitching in is core to our success and could be lost if we started charging membership fees. We have made great inroads and do a lot in the public sector but, with the private sector, the issue is the demand side. There are so many people not aware of the impact of unconscious bias and who don’t realise that diverse teams perform better; there are lots of places to influence still.


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