Bella Vuillermoz – Inspirational woman!

Bella Vuillermoz

I ‘met’ Bella first through a chance twitter encounter. She has the brilliantly titled role of Director of Women in Leadership which sounds pretty cool. A couple of conversations later and I’m even more impressed. Sky is certainly taking on gender equality on a big way.

Jane: Bella, do tell us what your role at Sky involves?
Bella: It’s an internal change agent role. It was a short term project role put in place to act as a catalyst for our ambitions around gender equality. Since I took it on at the end of May, we’ve set ourselves the aim of reaching a 50/50 gender split across our senior team (from CEO to CEO-3, around 400 roles in total). Today, a third of roles in that group are filled by women, so we’re building on a strong foundation. We’ve also created a comprehensive plan of action to get us there.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for businesses in relation to gender equality?
Honestly, I don’t think there is a big challenge for most sectors. It really isn’t rocket science. What it does require is absolute commitment from the top and a clear understanding of the business case amongst management. Once you have that, the rest is pretty straightforward.

Now, there are some sectors that have it harder than others, like technology: the proportion of roles across the UK tech sector filled by women is around 10%. That means that tech focused companies tend to have a double whammy: very limited numbers of female talent already in the business, coupled with a very small pool of female talent to fish in externally. But it is do-able – we’re building a brand new digital centre of excellence in Leeds at the moment, including building a team from scratch, of which currently 25% of roles are filled by women. That just proves that where there is a will there is a way. And they are awesome women by the way – that whole thing about a focus on gender equality eroding standards is total rubbish, you’re fishing from a bigger pool, you’re getting better people.

I’m applauding that last comment loud and long! How is Sky addressing this?
First of all, clear leadership from the top: our CEO has set this as a clear priority for the business and we also have two awesome sponsors in the shape of Chris Stylianou, the MD of our Customer Service Group, and Deborah Baker, Group Director of HR. Secondly, treating it like any other business priority – having a clear plan, with clear objectives, and driving accountability for delivery of those objectives into the business (for example, all of our Executive Directors have Women in Leadership objectives, including annual targets for those that oversee male skewed areas).

And what is that plan?
In three ways. Firstly, we are levelling the playing field in three ways: optimised job descriptions and adverts to minimise the risk of women self-selecting out before we even know they are looking; 50/50 gender balanced shortlists for all appointments to CEO-4 (this is a game-changer by the way, I’d strongly recommend other organisations to look at this if they aren’t already); and high quality unconscious bias training for hiring managers.

Secondly, we’re supercharging the brilliant talent we already have in the business. Before we kickstarted the initiative, we surveyed over 100 of our most senior women and in depth interviewed 20 of them. As part of this, we asked them to tell us what they felt were the priority challenges – they told us these were a lack of formal mentoring and sponsorship; their own self-limiting beliefs and the challenge of blending work and home. We’ve used this to focus our work.

We designed the Sky Women in Leadership Sponsorship & Development Programme and piloted it with 17 women. Today, over a 120 women are taking part. It’s a 12 month programme that provides participants with a senior sponsor who advocates for them around the business, helping them to identify and land new opportunities. Alongside this, the scheme offers development and knowledge sessions on topics ranging from self-belief to strategy and finance. We’re also giving all our people people more control of when and where they work, to help with that blending.

And finally we’re providing family care support – we already offer six months’ full paid shared parental leave and have an excellent Parents@Sky network, but we’re also looking at how we can support people with elder care.

Thirdly, we are, of course, looking to attract the very best talent into the organisation. We want women to know that not only are we very much open for business, but we’re already a great place for them to work. In Technology, which is more male skewed than the rest of the business, our Recruitment and Tech teams hold ‘Women in Technology’ events at our sites in Leeds, London and in Scotland – they are fab events, my favourite combination of prosecco, canapes, good networking and interesting speakers (well, they actually had me at processo, but I’m easily pleased).

Is there one piece of legislation you’d like to see introduced which would speed up the course of gender equality? I’m on the record as being a huge, if reluctant, supporter of quotas. I think we’ve always needed legislation to force social change and I can’t bear to wait another 50 years for equality. But I know most large businesses prefer the carrot route and it has worked to a degree (re women on boards). What’s your view?
I’m not a fan of legislation. After all, the business case is so obvious – why wouldn’t you do this? It’s good for your business, it’s good for your financial returns. And, it’s also the right thing to do – who wouldn’t support a move to ensure equality of opportunity. For us, it’s a no brainer.

But the reality is that many businesses aren’t grasping the opportunity. It’s one of the reasons why we spend time sharing what we are doing and why we are doing it: we hope to encourage others to follow suit (the other reason is that we picked the brains of all and sundry when we were designing up our approach, so it’s frankly our turn to pay it forward!). On the flip side, Mr Status Quo is a strong force to be reckoned with (as we can see from the swathes of businesses failing to grasp the gender balance opportunity) so I may be over optimistic.

I’d like to take you back to your school days for this question. Was equality something you were always interested in? For example, my eyes were thrust open when I began to study sociology for A level, and later when I became first girl to chair the Medway Schools Council. This was considered an amazing thing (1973…) Did you think of yourself as a feminist? Would young Bella recognise you now?
Not really. It didn’t really occur to me to be honest. I was the youngest of five children, with two working parents who both ran their own businesses. I was brought up to understand that you work for what you get and you always strive to improve. Gender never came into the mix. I went to a mixed school, where I ended up being the first ever female head of school, the first ever female head of the choir and the only girl on the swim team (partly because I was the only girl in my final year group!).

The idea that ‘girls can’t’ just didn’t cross my mind. But as I’ve got older, I’ve understood how lucky I was to be in that position. I’ve become aware of the brakes that girls and women face in reaching their potential. And I’ve realised the huge social and economic costs of that.

What was your career path to Sky? Did you plan your career?
I started out in the City – I kind of fell into Financial PR (I’d planned to get into EU lobbying, but couldn’t find an entry point). I worked in a PR agency for three years before I moved in house to Marks & Spencer. I went for probably a dozen different jobs before I landed the M&S one, including several that I got down to the last two for, but I never got the offer.

Actually, I got an offer one Friday for a role I desperately wanted, but over the weekend the Marketing Director was overruled by the Chief Executive and they withdrew the offer and gave the job to the other candidate. Not my favourite moment. Then the M&S role came up and I landed it – it was by far the best opportunity of all the jobs I’d gone for, funny how things work out if you persevere. I stayed at M&S for five years, where I learnt loads, before moving into the Sky corporate communications team. The week I joined, Jeremy Darroch became Chief Executive and I ended up running his comms programme as part of my role.

Cue a break for a baby (my very gorgeous daughter, Eva) along with a slipped disc and spinal fusion surgery. When I went back, I ended up heading up Sky’s sustainability team, spearheading the creation of Sky Academy, our initiative to help a million young people build confidence, skills and experience by 2020. While I was in the sustainability team, I joined a working group looking at increasing the gender balance at the top of the organisation, which ultimately led to me taking on this full time project role, which I have to say is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s been brilliant.

Who has had most influence on you, both personal and professional?
I’m lucky to have a strong network around me. In the early stages of my career, that happened almost by accident, but it’s something I very proactively nurture now. I’ve realised that having voices you trust around you (both at peer level and above) is a massively important part of your development and your ability to succeed. I call mine the Bella Boardroom. All of these people have influenced my life, and all for the better. My daughter now has a big influence on me personally – she grounds me and keeps me present in the most brilliant way.

What has been your proudest career moment to date?
It’s a tie between the launch of Sky Academy and the launch of the Sky Women in Leadership initiative. Both were amazing moments and I continue to be extremely proud of what we’ve built. They are demonstrations of what Sky does so well – setting big, bold ambitions and going after them.

If you could create any job for yourself, at any time in history, what would you choose?
I would create a Head of Female Economic Empowerment. It would be global role for the World plc. I’d create it about 100 years ago. We’d be in a very different place today if we’d effectively leveraged the social, political and economic power of women for the last century. Luckily for us, it’s not too late. And the case is crystal clear. We just need to get on with it now!

Bella, thank you so much for this. It’s been great to talk with you and such a joy to hear about all the things that Sky is doing right.

RenewYou, for women everywhere.


Posted on November 27th, 2015 by

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