WISE100: An interview with Maggie O’Carroll

“It is like pushing water up a hill.” Ellie Ward talks to Maggie O’Carroll, founder and CEO of The Women’s Organisation, about the state of gender equality in the workplace.

In 1996 Maggie O’Carroll created The Women’s Organisation with the aim of promoting female enterprise policy and ensuring the untapped potential of female entrepreneurship is released into the UK economy. The Women’s Organisation is a social enterprise and ‘the largest and most successful dedicated women’s business support charity and social business in the UK’.

Among her many responsibilities and achievements, O’Carroll recently led the creation of a £5.3m International Centre for Women’s Enterprise Development in Liverpool. She is also chair of the UK Women’s Enterprise Policy Group and a member of the Women’s Budget Group. Last week O’Carroll was also recognised by the WISE100, which is a new initiative from Pioneers Post and the NatWest SE100 Index that recognises 100 of the most inspiring and influential women in social enterprise, impact investment and social innovation.

Ellie Ward: What key barriers prevent more women from reaching leadership positions at work?

Maggie O’Carroll: There are structural inequalities in relation to how women are encouraged and enabled and that starts at school. The education system has tended to steer young women to particular subject areas. It starts in school but is then played out in the workplace in a variety of ways.

One of the critical things is that women are not visible. When we think of entrepreneurs, we automatically think of the likes of Richard Branson and Lord Sugar. Women haven’t been given the same level of profile as their male counterparts, so the media has a major part to play in not being lazy and making sure female entrepreneurs, such as Tesco Clubcard creator and entrepreneur Edwina Dunn, are profiled too.

The other aspect is business infrastructure and business support arrangements. We have a system which might not be overtly discriminatory towards women, but covertly it is in terms of how women are treated when, for example, they are attempting to access finance or when they’re trying to access business support.

I’m optimistic on the one hand but continue to be shocked

The other aspect is around leadership from a public perspective. Unlike in the United States, we don’t have a series of very clear investment and policy lines that target getting more women into starting businesses – both social entrepreneurs and private sector entrepreneurs. If you do things differently, you get a different result.

EW: What is the most challenging aspect of being CEO of The Women’s Organisation?

MO: We are not only a social business, we are landlords and service providers, we develop products and we market not only here but across the globe… Fundamentally, we are also campaigning and a policy influencing organisation. One of the greatest challenges I personally face and the organisation faces is this continual uphill struggle – it is like pushing water up a hill really – around getting women recognised by local government, national government, institutions and private businesses as an untapped entrepreneurial opportunity.

It is 2017 and the lack of gender and ethnicity balance is frankly appalling. It is just not good enough that we have a situation where women make up just 7% of the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. It is simply not good enough that we are aspiring to 10% to 15%. That is not equal – and UK business is missing out as a result. But there is a continual reaction that means anyone, man or woman, who puts their head above the parapet to draw attention to this, is trolled online and criticised. It is like we are  living back in the 1950s in some cases.

I’m optimistic on the one hand but continue to be shocked at the lack of gender balance and how for a lot of people in power, for example, the default position is ‘Oh, we did not realise we had a panel of 10 men’. It feels like we are slightly regressing.

EW: Do you think that initiatives like the WISE100, which spotlight women in leadership positions, are important in 2017?

MO: Yes. The WISE100 is an initiative that is very clear in its objectives, it has got a national perspective, it has objectivity and independence attached to it, it has got the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders and it has got a corporate champion in the form of NatWest. All of those ingredients help to change hearts and minds. They help to create a new dialogue and discourse around women in social business.


For more information about the WISE100 and the full list of 100 recognised women, click here.