Interview with Yvonne Thompson: Campaigner for Women’s Equality in the Workplace

“As a woman, when you get to the top you cannot relax; you always have to remember that you have to work twice as hard to stay there.”

Dr Yvonne Thompson has for over 30 years campaigned for minorities, small business owners and closest to her heart, race and women’s equality in the workplace, especially the boardroom. She received a CBE from the Queen of England for this work. Having spent nearly 15 years being the only woman on a board with nine men, at Choice FM (the UK’s first legal black music radio station, now Capital Xtra), she decided to share her experience and advice to help other aspiring women resulting in the book ‘’7 traits of Highly Successful Women on Boards’’. You can find more on www.msyvonnethompson.com

You’ve accomplished much; been involved with public boards, small business, mentoring leaders etc. What’s your overriding life mission?

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to help people and I am achieving this mission through being an entrepreneur. My success in life has meant that I have been able to pass on my knowledge, support others where and when I can through coaching and mentoring.  I started two business networks – The European Federation of Black Women Business Owners, and the African Caribbean Business network – both support networks for women, minorities and small business.  What drives me is to see black businesses and women owned businesses getting a fair share of the economic wealth in their countries and to see equality in business, race and gender. If that happens or we get close to it in my life time, I would have achieved a lifetime wish.  If not I will keep championing these causes until my eyes close.

Why the special focus on women’s leadership and since you’ve been doing this what’s been the biggest shift you’ve seen that you take some credit for?

My focus on women’s leadership is because of how few women leaders there are. Women are in the majority when it comes to making household financial decisions and in many cases when it comes to leadership in the home and making family decisions on a daily basis. All these skills are transferable and required in business and yet when it comes to business and leadership positions, women lose out. This is not fair, and needs to be redressed.

The biggest shift that I’ve seen since starting my own business and campaigns is the number of women and in particular Black women starting and running their own businesses.  I would not be so bold as to say that I can take credit for this, but through the two mentioned business networks, I know I have touched thousands of women nationally, internationally, and I would dare to say globally.

Your book ‘’The 7 Traits of Highly Successful Women on Boards’’ has been hailed as ‘’ the Board woman’s bible’’ What makes it such a must have for women who have set their sights high?

People learn more from storytelling; not facts, figures, and policies. The stories that are told in the book are from people I call “Real Models” not role models.  They are not play acting a role. They’ve been there, done it and still doing it. They tell their tips, advice, strategies, challenges and how they got round them, and help you navigate your way to the board room or up the ladder a few more rungs. You can read it chapter and verse, or dip in and out as you wish. As the Ex UK Deputy Prime Minister’s wife Miriam Gonzalez said “This is a book that every female careerist should have by her bedside”.

Evidence is getting stronger that organizations that have adequate numbers of women on their boards are more successful. Describe for me the type of organizational environment that women can succeed and advance to the top in?

It would be the type of organizational environment that is Gender Brave not Gender Blind. One that welcomes women, accommodates and supports women. Such an organization would be forward thinking, open and willing to listen, to change and to adapt. Such a mindset and approach can also make the organization be profitable.

From your own experience and as an expert on how women can breakthrough to the boardroom what would say are the critical competencies and traits for women first to become successful and secondly to sustain that success?

The traits necessary for women to breakthrough to the boardroom will vary depending on organization as their structure, culture and industry will dictate the kind of person male or female that will survive and thrive. But generally the skills needed in addition to those connected to the industry would be rounded communication skills, authentic leadership, leading by consensus, leading from the front, determination (with flexibility), good people skills and lots of what I call bounce-back-ability, namely resilience. It always helps if you also ensure that you know how to take time out.

Several strategies are being used to help women rise although obviously more could be done. Which initiatives in your view are working and can be expanded?

I am a strong believer in the quota system but with built in time lapse.  So for example, for a period of 5 years there should be a quota system with a fixed percentage of women being on the company boards. After that time market forces will prevail. True meritocracy is a long way off but a managed quota system could help address the imbalance in leadership in the short to medium term.

As a senior woman leader, what’s the view from the top and what does the women leaders pipeline need to look like in terms of the quality of entrants?

The view from the top can be great, but when you get there you cannot relax, you always have to remember that you have to work twice as hard to stay there. You also have a responsibility to ensure that you make room and help others get there too otherwise we will have to start all over again trying to fill the women leaders talent pipeline. Madeleine Albright, Former US secretary of state is quoted as saying “There’s a special place reserved in hell for women who don’t help other women”. We have a duty to pull other women up.

You have been involved in many firsts including Mayor Bill White proclaiming in Houston, Texas, ‘’Yvonne Thompson Day’’ on 4th January 2004. What was the significance of that and what’s happened on this day since the proclamation?

This proclamation is for people who they think have made a difference in their town or city. I launched the European Federation of Black Women Business Owners there in US there on that day.  There is a Chapter of the network there, and that Chapter participated in a Congress we held at UNESCO in Paris, and then did their own Congress in Texas. The group is still virtual – there have been no further meetings that I am aware of.

For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.

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