Baroness Royall

Baroness Royall

“My advice to any women aiming for a leadership position is to be bold”

Civil Service College met Baroness Jan Royall, to talk about the restraints that women are currently facing, why role models are so important in promoting diversity and what advice she would have for any woman striving for a leadership role.

Baroness Jan Royall is a very busy woman. As well as being an active member of the Labour Party in the House of Lords, she holds positions of leadership and influence in numerous organisations and foundations working to get women and people of ethnic  minorities into positions of leadership themselves.

The work that Baroness Royall does breaks down into several different categories: one is the work that she does with the party of European socialists, of which she is the Vice President and in which capacity she will be attending a conference in Croatia at the end of August, organised by and for women in the Balkans. A large part of this will be looking at the issues surrounding women in leadership and trying to ensure that women have the confidence and the skills to take leadership positions, both in political parties and in their systems of government, but also in civil society. .

But her work isn’t just concentrated on champion women abroad. With so many women, as well as black and ethnic minority people, missing out on some of the top positions in government as well as in private business, it is simply a fact that more needs to be done. But what is it that women can bring to a leadership role that’s different from what the men bring? “Women in leadership roles can be hugely influential in families, communities and in society as a whole,” says Baroness Royall. “It’s been said that if you educate a women you educate the whole of her community and society, whereas if you educate a man you just educate the one person. I think it’s the same everywhere, not just in developing countries.”


"In order to have a healthy society, we need to have organisations that reflect the society in which we live.”

While there seem to be encouraging steps towards women in leadership in developing countries (roughly half of all leadership positions in political parties in new democracies are held by women), why is it such a struggle to get women to the top at home? It’s a topic close to Baroness Royall’s heart and is something that she is exploring in her capacity of Pro-chancellor of Bath University.

“One issue is that these days, because so much university funding is based on research, everybody who is climbing the ladder needs to be able to demonstrate their research capacity. That’s what the men do. They‘re in their departments and they focus on their research with a bit of teaching, but if you want a healthy department you have to have things like an ethics committee and pastoral issues with students, and the women feel that it’s left to them to fulfil these tasks. When it comes to promotion, those tasks are not taken into the same consideration as research.”

So what’s the solution? “Well, I was talking to a very senior woman and she said that the women should just refuse to do these things. They should just focus on the research like the men.” Obviously the collapse of a department and the implications on student’s education isn’t the ideal solution to the gender imbalance, so finding some sort of equivalence between research and the other issues that are equally important for the wellbeing of the students and the reputation of the university would be preferable. “We’re exploring those issues now,” says Jan, but she seems quietly optimistic that things are, at least, beginning to change.

“There are more women who are pro-chancellors, as well as on the councils and governing bodies of universities, but still not enough.”

But of course we all know that it’s not just within academic institutions what women can end up drawing the short straw. Often it’s at the point of interview, or even the job advertisement, where, women miss out. “If you have boards that are dominated by white middle class men, even if they think they are being unbiased, they tend to employ people who look and sound like them. So it’s really important, and this is evidence based, that you have appointment boards that are truly diverse and deal with this issue through methods such as unconscious bias training, for example.”


"Women should just refuse to do these things. They should just focus on the research like the men.” 

This applies to black and ethnic minority people too and highlights the needs for problems to be addressed at the very beginning of the recruitment process, such as with those actually doing the hiring, writing the job advert or even deciding where their advert is going to be placed in order to reach a wider pool of diversity. “You talk to people who are in very senior positions, who say ‘well of course we want more diversity, we recognise that it’s hugely important, but people simply aren’t there’ and we know that they are.” It’s just about targeting people in the right way.

Baroness Royall also works closely with DRIVE (Diversity Recruitment Institute for Value and Excellence), an organisation that works closely with big companies to move their diversity recruitment away from being simply a tick-box exercise.  “It does improve companies if you have a more diverse workforce. It’s an economic necessity as well as being the right thing to do.”

“Every part of society that you look at, organisations still don’t reflect the society in which we live. I think that it’s necessary from an economic perspective as well as from a social perspective. Because in order to have a healthy society, we need to have organisations that reflect the society in which we live.”

One of the very surprising problems surrounding the issue of diversity in leadership roles is that many women and black and ethnic minority people who have made it to the top are unwilling to take up the mantle as a role model. Perhaps understandably, they want to be known as being good at what they do as a human being, rather than as a woman. But Baroness Royall thinks this is a hugely missed opportunity to normalise diversity at the top levels.

“For women, black people, people from ethnic minorities, disabled people and the LGBT community, we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do to even the playing field. I’m sorry, but until we’ve done that, they are role models. And they’ve got to be role models, because it’s inspirational for young people. Especially young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t know what they can aspire to. They don’t know that they’ve got fantastic talents that can be developed and that they too can be leaders.”


"For women, black people, people from ethnic minorities, disabled people and the LGBT community, we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do to even the playing field."

There is of course a brand new Mayor of London who fits the bill quite perfectly. “Think of Sadiq Khan. Kids at an inner city school can look at him and think, ‘my gosh, there he is, the son of a bus driver! He’s done it, so can I!’”, but Baroness Royall insists that it’s not simply enough to be in the public eye. There needs to be active participation and encouragement. “I think it’s really important that people are proud role models and that they go and meet the children and young people at schools and universities.”

It would be wrong to talk about the problems of getting women into positions of leadership without circling around the issues of pregnancies and maternity leave. “You get to a certain point within an organisation where the women are in the pipe line and doing really well, and then at a certain level they just drop off.” Is hiring women simply seen as a bad investment if you need someone who can climb to the top, unencumbered by sprogs?

Baroness Royall doesn’t think so. “There’s evidence that if you’ve trained somebody and they’ve got the experience, it’s actually more economically beneficial to pay them for their maternity leave for them to come back and work with you. It’s better to offer good maternity terms than to hire someone else.”

“I think it’s really important that people are proud role models and that they go and meet the children and young people at schools and universities.”


But the way we work is changing. People no longer have a job for life and many companies are more interested in employees delivering results than just showing up to sit at their desks for eight hours a day. How will this impact on the way that women work? “There’s more flexibility in the work place and the way in which people are employed. There’s more emphasis on work-life balance.” This can only be good news for women looking for a way to work their career around their home commitments, rather than having to slot family life into the rigid demands of their office jobs and missing out on top positions as a result of men simply being more available.

This responsibility of women being the primary carers in family life is also something that Baroness Royall considers needs to be addressed. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do on society’s acceptance of stay at home dads. I was recently speaking to a woman who holds a very senior position in the Civil Service whose husband is a stay at home dad. She goes to loads of functions and I asked her if her husband goes with her, because some must be quite jolly, and she said no. It’s too difficult for him because people would ask what he did and when he told them they simply weren’t interested would just walk away.

“That made it difficult for her because she was so conscious that he was having such a terrible time, so they agreed that it would just be better if he didn’t accompany her.” But don’t stay at home mums get the same reaction? “Oh god no.”

“So we’ve got a lot to do. A lot of this is to do with culture and mind sets, and that’s the most difficult thing to change.”

Ultimately, what advice would Baroness Royall give to women who wanted to get into a position of leadership? The answer applies to the organisations as well as the individuals: “Be confident, be bold and take risks.” 



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