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Women in Business

Twelve months ago I was delighted to be nominated for the First Women Awards, in association with Lloyds Banking Group, by colleagues at KPMG if somewhat surprised that my unplanned and atypical career was attracting headlines.

Twelve months ago I was delighted to be nominated for the First Women Awards, in association with Lloyds Banking Group, by colleagues at KPMG if somewhat surprised that my unplanned and atypical career was attracting headlines. The atmosphere - in what was an overwhelmingly female setting - was electric, ably encouraged by the incomparable Clare Balding. It even drew enthusiastic comment from male colleagues!

But this isn't about making men feel awkward on those rare occasions they find themselves in a minority. It's an observation that, at a big picture level, men and women are motivated by different things and react to the same circumstance in different ways. Both have their place. Both perspectives should be acknowledged.

But that doesn't mean that either should be watered down out of fear of upsetting the 'other side'. Yes, at last year's event there was a sense of 'girls on tour'; there was a feeling that there was 'safety in numbers' but that also shouldn't diminish the importance of celebrating achievements.

We must celebrate, if we are to avoid the ignominy of ongoing inequality. Does it sound far-fetched? Cynics, or those with something to fear may say so, but, if you read the report, 'Sex and Power 2013, who runs Britain?', produced by the 'Counting Women In' collation, you won't think so.

It focuses on how, since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed 40 years ago, very little has changed. Take, for example, representation of women in politics and public decision-making in Britain; I find it incredulous that there has been movement - especially as it is movement of the wrong kind. Looking at numbers alone, it seems that the only direction we have moved over the past two decades is backwards. There was talk, back in 1997 of the 'Blair Babes' leading a political revolution, but that hasn't been sustained.

Women now make up 51 percent of the UK population yet Britain lags behind most of the rest of Europe and continues to fall through the global league table, when it comes to female legislative representatives. Of western European countries, only Italy, Ireland and Monaco had a lower percentage of women legislators than the UK in 2012. That's why the current rate of progress is unacceptable. Or, put another way, why at the current rate of progress a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the Parliament of her country.

And this report is not alone in its conclusions. First, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and then its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have voiced similar concerns. Combined, the three organisations strongly support the view that the exclusion of women from positions of power damages the interests of women and men, as well as the country as a whole.

The report makes 6 pithy recommendations. One of these is that all organisations - public, private and third sector - should take steps to ensure that, at meetings and events, both women and men appear on platforms as speakers, and editors and broadcasters should also take responsibility for commissioning contributions from both women and men as commentators. Recently I spotted the first panel on BBC Radio 4's 'Any Questions' programme, I have heard, where there were more women than men - indeed it happened twice in recent weeks, so hat's off to the editors.

And there's been more of an effort to make things change, too. Back in February 2011, Lord Davies launched his independent review of Women on Boards. He called for 25 percent female representation, at least, on the Boards of all the FTSE100, urging companies to 'set targets for 2013 and 2015 to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into the top jobs in companies across the UK'. Whilst progress has been made it remains glacial and for this reason, amongst many, the First Women Awards are very important to recognise and buttress the progress which is being made.

In Laura Liswood's wonderful book, The Loudest Duck, she describes the experiences of Ben Barres. He gave a scientific presentation and overheard a male scientist say" Ben gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister's work". The scientist had initially seen Ben presenting his work as a woman. Liswood points out that while much had changed about Ben his research was one constant. The observer had brought his unconscious way of hearing, thinking and perceiving to the lecture. Ben has also pointed out that, as a man, he is interrupted less frequently than when he was a female. Perhaps that provides an insight into the incredible atmosphere at the First Women's Awards - not so much women behaving badly as a fun night out where unconscious bias and paternalism can stay at home!

Hilary Thomas was shortlisted for the 2012 First Women Awards.

The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.