Hiney. Angela is Head of Tax at Victrex, and kindly agreed to talk to us about her experience in chemical engineering and finance. She shared so many fantastic insights that we couldn’t bear to cut any of them – so here is her unabridged interview…
1. You’ve had a really varied career – could you tell us a bit about how you have got to where you are today?
My educational background is actually in Chemical Engineering, which I studied at university. I chose Chemical Engineering primarily because it gave me options related to maths and science. This is something I’ve done throughout my career, keeping my options open and taking opportunities to do as many different things as possible.
During university, I did two placements with Imperial Chemical Industries, and found that I loved being involved with people and project management, and the corporate side of things, rather than working on specific engineering tasks. I was also the president of the Student Industrial Society during my degree, and met many different companies this way -this contact with different businesses led to my first graduate job in tax at Deloitte (then Anderson). At Deloitte I took every opportunity to gain qualifications and varied experience, and was eventually seconded to London as a Senior Manager. This was a fantastic role, allowing me to meet clients from all over the country, and involved complicated thinking and restructuring.
I have always loved working, and it is a very important part of my identity, so when I got pregnant and went on maternity leave, I knew I wanted to go back to work after 6 months. However, when I returned, I realised that things had changed. It was no longer practical to be working extremely long days in London, and I did not want to be missing out on time with my baby.
I decided to look for a job closer to home to allow me to be closer to my family, but which would not require a step down in my career – a big ask! I was very lucky that a job came up which offered the perfect opportunity: Head of Tax at Victrex. It was a perfect match between my experience and my location, as well as the opportunities it offered. Because it was a new role, I was able to come in and make the job what I wanted it to be – I couldn’t have asked for a better fit. I have now been at Victrex for 3 years as Head of Tax.
2.What career advice would you give to young women today?
Don’t be scared! Accept that other people’s circumstances are different to yours, and that you don’t have to follow someone else’s path. It is your perception of your own success which matters, not other people’s perception of your success.
You also need to have faith in yourself, because if you don’t, who else will? There are plenty of people who will tear you down, but there’s nobody who will push you up for nothing. I have always been ambitious and gone after what I wanted – I learnt at Deloitte that you need to get your elbows out to get seen! However, there’s a fine line between being too pushy and making sure your voice is heard.
Work hard, do well, and don’t be shy to shout about your achievements – just don’t fall into the trap of constant self-promotion, because it can appear insubstantial and arrogant. The best thing to do is to work out quickly what works in the business that you’re in, and adapt to the different personality traits around you, particularly those of your managers.
A final piece of advice for all young people entering the world of work is to do your own research – I only became aware of big accountancy firms at university, but have spent most of my working life at Deloitte. Don’t underestimate how much doing a bit of research will set you apart in the job hunt.
3. A study by Robert Half UK showed that two thirds (64%) of UK finance chiefs say there are more opportunities for women to advance through the ranks in finance and accounting than 10 years ago – do you agree?
I definitely agree – I think finance is losing a lot of its traditional stuffiness, where there were narrowly defined roles. Finance professionals are increasingly acting as business advisors or consultants, and there is greater potential for flexibility, which benefits women in particular.
Finance is a really exciting profession today, because we are increasingly actively involved in real time business decisions rather than looking backwards at last year’s figures. Businesses have recognised the value that finance experts bring to commercial business decisions. In my role, I don’t just sit there doing tax returns, I am consulted and involved in any business decision where tax could possibly be a factor.
Because of these fluid new roles, finance is also much more people-focused than it used to be, meaning that people with strong interpersonal skills and natural financial acumen can go far. This can also benefit women who may have a different skillset to the ‘traditional’ business skills.
4. What do you think are the biggest challenges women face in business?
One of the biggest things women have to deal with is ourselves! What I mean by this is that it’s difficult to find a balance that is right for you, and then be comfortable with that decision. It is fine to still be ambitious once you’ve had a family, and it is fine to decide you want to channel that ambition into raising children or other challenges – neither is better or worse than the other.
Unfortunately, there can be an attitude of being ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ – we judge ourselves and we judge each other, when we should be being supportive of other women’s decisions. Don’t worry about what other people are doing; just focus on what is right for you.
It is also still hard when you have a family, because, even with the new parental rights changes, a lot of the childcare does fall on us. I also think that equal parental leave will not be widely taken up, because it is still difficult for fathers to feel they can take paternity leave without being disadvantaged on their return to work. For women, taking time off is ‘expected’ (for better or worse), but for men, it can often be seen as a lack of ambition or work ethic.
I think this is increasingly an issue for businesses, because a lack of flexibility can lead to huge retention issues. For me, I think it is better to have someone who is good at their job working at their best for 3 days a week and taking the rest of the week to be with their family, than to have someone who is less good or less engaged working 5 days a week.
5.What do you think are the differences between women and men in the workplace?
I think a key difference is that women have a different benchmark of success to men, perhaps because men tend to have more ‘set’ career paths. For example, if a woman were to opt out of the expected career track to set up her own firm which fitted around the rest of her life, women would be more likely to see that as success, whereas men might think she hadn’t quite made it.
Society also still struggles with the outdated attitude that for a woman to be seen as ambitious is somehow vulgar. The expectation is that a woman will take a step back from her career to raise a family, even if her job pays a similar amount to her husband’s job, and that this means women are somehow less ambitious. Often, it might be a practical decision made for the entire family – I don’t believe that bright, ambitious women simply switch that off when they have children. Ambition may also be focused in a different area, so leaving a high-flying role doesn’t mean a loss of ambition, it may just mean that that ambition is focused on family, charity work, or one of the many other things that people have in their lives.
6. Who is your heroine/female role model, and why?
To be brutally honest, I don’t have any! I believe in making decisions based on what is right for you – it is good to have people you respect, but you need to follow your own path. That said, there are 3 businesswomen who I greatly respect:
Jacqueline Gold (Ann Summers) – She is very successful but not ‘in your face’ about it. She is a great businesswoman, but she gets on with it instead of endlessly promoting herself.
Anita Roddick (Body Shop) – I really respect the fact that Anita set up a business based around her ethics and beliefs, and made it a success.
J.K. Rowling (Author of Harry Potter) – I respect that, despite her ‘rags to riches’ story, J.K. Rowling still stands up for what she believes in, defends her causes, and sticks up for the underdog.
7. What is your hope for the future of women in business?
I definitely do not want to push people into jobs they’re not ready for just to tick a diversity box, but I do want things to change to allow more diversity in business, because the companies that are really successful are those embracing that attitude. I also think that it demonstrates strength of management, realising that people who think differently to you can bring value to the business. I hope to see businesses getting real value out of the Women on Boards initiative, for example, and I think it’s the responsibility of the women who do sit on these boards to really show the benefits that diversity can bring to a business.
I also think that it is important to remember that equality is not about being the same, it’s about being treated fairly; women are not the same as men, and we shouldn’t expect them to act like it. There is nothing wrong with being realistic – taking time out may mean that things might have to slow down, but it shouldn’t be a reason not to hire someone.
Finally, I would love to see women being recognised for the skills that they bring to the workplace which aren’t necessarily ‘traditional’ business skills. We don’t need everyone to be ruthless – having people who are measured adds value to a business as well. Forward-thinking businesses realise that diversity of thought plays a big part in success.
Written by Florence Sturt-Hammond