On 8th March, people around the globe come together to celebrate the important contributions women make to society and that everyone has an equal role to play in creating a ‘gender-balanced’ world.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias—meaning creating a world free of discrimination, stereotypes and biases. A gender equal world.
At GK Strategy, we are proud to support our colleagues with strengthened parental leave, menopause, and equal opportunities policies. We are also proud of our work to empower more women to enter and progress in the sector. Moreover, we are very proud to have a female leader.
Louise Allen is the CEO of GK Strategy and has answered some questions about how she and GK work to create a more gender-balanced world and break the bias.
Interview of Louise Allen by Rebecca Deegan, Founder and CEO of I Have a Voice and Nicole Wyatt, Associate at GK Strategy:
NW: Generally, do you think women face any bias in the public affairs and strategic communications sector or politics?
LA: Absolutely. Senior women are leaving the sector in droves because agency life is not working for them. It’s a massive waste of talent.
At GK we have a board that focuses on empowering women in senior positions. When I took on the role of CEO, it came with unquestionable support from the board.
We work across finance and politics, and I often find that I am the only woman in the room. Inherently that creates bias. Women often need to earn the respect of the room rather than granted it by virtue of their presence and position. We really need to change this.
This is epitomised for me by how regularly people assume I am someone’s personal assistant. I love PAs—they are amazing, But, even if its unintentional, it is a bias that a man would not experience.
I’ve also noticed that there are often very few quotes in the media attributed to senior women in the industry. We need to be better at challenging journalists that don’t quote women experts and seek out their male colleagues for comment.
RD: Have you noticed any changes throughout your career – both from the perspective of the industry potentially changing and as you’ve become increasingly senior?
LA: Things are improving. I am forever an optimist—you have to be. I see a lot of great women in senior roles, running organisations, making things better for women. This has vastly improved over the past 10 years, and you are seeing more and more talented women coming through the system.
You are starting to see more women who are in positions to put ladders down for other women to climb. But there needs to be more done at senior levels, including more diversity amongst strategic advisers and senior leadership teams.
Breaking the bias for women needs to include intersectionality. I am proud that I was the first in my family to go to university. I recognise that I have white privilege. We don’t see enough women of colour or people from low-income backgrounds in our sector. We must prioritise all forms of diversity.
Increasingly, the commitment and willingness are there. I think people have wanted things to be better for some time. We have great organisations, such as I Have a Voice, that can really help to drive change. There are no excuses now.
NW: That’s great, but what do you think can be done to break gender bias in the sector?
LA: I think there are a few things.
One is supporting parents who come back to work after taking parental leave. When I came back from maternity leave GK was extremely supportive and promoted me twice after coming back. But it is an adjustment. Politics is so fast-moving you feel out of it after being away for a while. You feel like you lose your expertise, but you don’t—it’s a confidence thing.
GK was founded by two young dads and so I intentionally said parental leave, not maternity leave. Supporting dads in the workplace is so important. It stops it from being a conversation about mothers and childcare. It becomes a conversation about parents—whatever your family make up—and childcare needs. My husband takes equal responsibility for our childcare and so it is equally important that dads have equal flexibility. That’s why I extended parental leave, at full pay at GK.
We’ve adopted a whole range of policies to support women. We see our policies as living documents that will need to constantly evolve. Whenever we see something that needs to change, we change it. We have a staff council that is part of the policy developing process to make sure our policies reflect their needs. We see the benefits of crystallising things that are in our culture on paper as this creates clarity and assurances about what support you can expect.
The second is that more openness is definitely required. Talking more about endometriosis in the office. Talking more about baby loss, abortion, menopause, and the support people need from their employer during these times helps to create a supportive environment. I never want to be in an organisation that doesn’t talk about things.
Reporting is also key. We have reported on gender pay gap before ( which is negative) and we will do again.
NW: How do you feel about salary bands? Women in Public Affairs (WiPA) did a survey and found that 87% of women are put off from applying for a job if the salary bands are not openly advertised.
LA: I think salary bands are important as they give us the parameters to judge equity and if we think that not publishing them is a barrier to women applying for roles then we need to change that, today. We do a mixture of putting competitive and salary banding at the moment as we think there may be times when salary bands can put women off, so I want to understand this better and understand what is needed. I am not wedded to a set way of doing things, I am committed to making changes when needed, so I will ask our staff council their views.
This also raises gender differences in job descriptions more broadly, and the likelihood of women applying for senior roles where they can already prove they can do 90% of the job description, feel unsure on the 10%. Whereas my experience is that men are less likely to be put off by a proportion of a job description being new to them or a significant step-up.
Anything we can do to make recruitment more equal is absolutely right and necessary.
RD: What are your aspirations for breaking the bias in the industry and how will you use your platform as a CEO in the sector?
We’re in the process of setting up a network for senior women in the sector. The hope is that if something like including salary bands in job descriptions was agreed as a necessary thing to do, that we have the right women in the room to make those changes, quickly, across the sector.
I also want to encourage more open conversations about what it is like to be a working parent in the sector, particularly just after returning from parental leave, as this is a crucial point at which we’re losing talent.
Finally, given GK’s work with the investment world, I want to do more to bring together women in these two interwoven, male-dominated industries and we’re in the process of putting some budget towards this.
These are on top of the things we’re already doing through our support for I Have a Voice and a domestic abuse charity, Surviving Economic Abuse. Equality is already embedded in our culture and crystallised in our policies, but I hope to be louder on these issues as CEO to encourage and support equality across the industry.
GK and I Have a Voice
GK Strategy closely partners with I Have a Voice, an organisation that supports young people from under-represented backgrounds to engage with politics on the issues that matter to them and their communities. We have a shared goal of creating opportunities for young people who may not think they have a valid voice in the political realm to get involved personally and professionally. GK has committed to hiring 100% of our interns from I Have a Voice’s amazing participants.
In the past, we have had amazing interns work for GK from I Have a Voice, such as:
“At university, I usually feel outnumbered by men in my Politics and International Relations lectures but being given the opportunity to work with GK Strategy gave me the space to develop my skills and use my own voice. I now feel prepared to go into the public affairs sector, because interpersonal skills and practical experience are invaluable when it comes to the world of work, especially in politics.”
“It isn’t enough to just call out gender bias, individuals and workplaces need to actively fight discrimination and tackle misogynistic behaviours and attitudes, no matter how small. I love how GK Strategy and I Have a Voice are doing this and have provided me with opportunities I never thought possible. I once thought I had no place in politics, but IHAV and GK are proving that everyone has a place in politics and public affairs, regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality!”
“Work experience with GK strategy allowed me to learn about a career in public affairs with inspiring women in leadership roles. I am able to see that the profession is working hard to break down barriers especially for young women. To further #BreakTheBias GK arranged a fantastic virtual work experience, which as a young person based in the north-west, gave to me an opportunity usually only open to people who are able to travel to London.”
“Seeing a lack of representation in politics has always been extremely discouraging, especially from being from a black working-class background as I always found it hard to access opportunities that different people were exposed to at a younger age. Working with GK Strategy and I Have a Voice has meant I have learnt about a range of careers in politics that I never knew existed! Learning about the field of public affairs at a paid internship at GK and campaigning at IHAV has really equipped me for future jobs!”