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Why Women Role Models Still Matter

15/07/2015 17:54 BST | Updated 15/07/2016 10:59 BST

From Anna Wintour to Sara Khan and even Caitlyn Jenner, the recent "power list" of the most influential women voted by BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour was an inspired and electric mix of personalities. The aim was to identify a range of women who have an exceptionally large impact on our lives, not because of their job title but because of their personal ability to influence others.

The list however comes at a time when there is much debate about the role of women-only accolades and the questionable need for a special spotlight on their achievements. After all, we don't have many men-only lists or men-only awards, so why do we still need women-only initiatives and what message does this send out today?

Recently the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - the only UK book award for fiction written by women - generated considerable publicity and debate on whether such an award advances the cause of women or patronises them. Writers like Zoe Heller stated in the New York Times that there is a risk that women-only accolades institutionalise women's 'second class, junior league status', and more recently, Jan Dalley in the Financial Times voiced concern that 'gender-based special pleading could imply weakness in today's world'.

As a woman who cares deeply about gender equality and understands the value of creating and celebrating strong female role models, I felt a considered response was required.

First, I completely understand the root of all such sentiments. After all, we live in a world where significant progress has been made on gender equality in developed communities, allowing for a better representation and recognition of women's contributions across the board. In fact, my 21 year old son Jake believes that his generation will naturally have grown up with a different, positive view of women - a view which means that these sort of debates will no longer be necessary. I do hope he's right, but I don't think we can count on it.

In the world in which I have pursued my career, we now know that companies in which women leaders achieve parity with their male counterparts do better. Firms with more women enjoy 56% higher margins, according to McKinsey. Yet despite this, in the UK there are more men named John than women on FTSE 100 Boards and in the US, only 23 CEOs in the S&P 500 are female.

Women have discovered that waiting for the world to do the right thing is not sufficient. That it's not enough to have equal rights and demonstrable proof that gender balance benefits employers. We have found out the hard way that only if you actively intervene do you begin to move towards true equality. Perhaps because in the world of business that I operate in we are used to taking action to achieve desirable outcomes, so this no longer seems strange to me.

I am proud that Diageo is the FTSE 100 Company with the highest number of women at the most senior levels. 45% of our Board Directors and 40% of our Executive team are women. The diversity that this creates ensures that there is not only a different conversation in the boardroom, but also a balanced conversation. And even more importantly, the impact this has on younger women in our organisation is enormous, allowing them the confidence to say - "I can do that".

It is important to remember that this debate and the need for more women-focused action isn't about better. It's about equal. And I believe that equal is better for everyone.

In the literary sector, it is sad to see that despite women having held their own as writers for far longer than they have in business, there is still a persistent gender gap in the recognition they are afforded. Records show that women have consistently underperformed in prizes, nor are they accorded equal treatment by the media. For example, the percentage of books written by women that are reviewed in major titles still stands at just 28%.

That this bias persists in writing, an arena in which Charlotte Bronte wrote more than 150 years ago, "To you I am neither Man nor Woman - I come before you as Author only", is extraordinary. It is also evidence to a businesswoman like me that an intervention is clearly called for and that simply assuming that it will all come right without direct action is clearly not working.

So I applaud any female-only list, award or initiative that looks to celebrate or shine a light on the great work of women all over the world.

Ali Smith's How To Be Both and its focus on challenging gender norms may have won the coveted Baileys Prize, and an equally impressive array of leading women may have made it to the top of the BBC power list, but the real beneficiaries are today's women and the future generations who need strong role models to inspire and give them the confidence to say - "I can do that".