Voice’s of Addidi: Sarah Matthew

As part of the 100 year celebrations of women gaining the right to vote in the UK for the first time, Addidi is proud to be featured in UK Parliament’s official commemorative album, Voice & Vote.

To help celebrate this milestone in our history, we’ve decided to put together a series called ‘Voices of Addidi’. Featuring conversations with members of the Addidi team, clients, friends and associates, each piece will look at what gaining the right to vote means and the experiences of the individual in relation to women and equality.

Our first Voice of Addidi is Sarah Matthew. With a long and successful career in pharmaceutical marketing and healthcare communications, Sarah co-founded leading international healthcare communications and medical education consultancy, Virgo Health. She is now Chair of Hanover Health and also founder of The Vibrant Company.

We’re celebrating 100 years of women gaining the vote this year. What are your thoughts on the landmark?
It’s obviously right that we are marking this incredibly important milestone and my main feeling is one of gratitude to those brave and visionary people, women and men, who fought so hard to gain the vote for women 100 years ago. Thanks to them, I grew up with the belief that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. I therefore consider myself extremely fortunate to have created the career and the life that I have.
At the same time, it’s a natural reflection point for assessing how far we have come. We have much to be proud of but in my opinion there is still a long way to go before we have true equality – not just for women, but for equal and diverse inclusion and representation across the board.

Women have made much progress over the last 100 years but what are your views on where we still have to go?
As someone who advises, coaches and mentors business leaders, examples of where we still need improvement are all too numerous and one I encounter on a regular basis is funding for start-ups, where it is apparent that access to finance is far more limited for women entrepreneurs than their male counterparts. This is the main reason I decided to become an angel investor via the Addidi Angels programme, established as the first all-women angel investment club in the UK – it’s important to pay it forward and give other women the same access to opportunities I had earlier on in my own career. Although a great deal of progress has indeed been made, the rate of continuing improvement can make for rather depressing reading.
Of the FTSE 100 companies, only 6 have a female CEO – a stark statistic in anyone’s eyes. This correlates with the continuing struggles that women have in gaining senior positions in business. The contributing factors are complex, but for all the women I speak to, for all the businesses I work with and for all the events I attend on this topic, the fact that in the twenty-first century women still constitute the majority of primary care-givers and primary managers of their respective households, remains the greatest challenge to navigate. The impact can be felt across the whole of a woman’s working life, as intimately illustrated by the findings of this year’s Gender Pay Gap report, and ultimately results in a huge loss to industry of female talent. It’s simply too high a price to pay.

When it’s an established fact that having women on company boards leads to better financial success, we must address the whole pipeline. We can do better and we can go faster.

What advice would you give to a women starting out in her career today?
My key piece of advice is to have the confidence to follow your own path and don’t accept the status quo. We need women to invent, to innovate and to be front and centre in creating a better future. Seek mentors, men and women, who are forging new paths in the direction you’re interested in.
I’m a fierce champion for women in business and I’m involved with a number of women’s forums. Often what I see is that conformity with the ‘now’ results in a completely innocent and unconscious, self-imposed ‘glass ceiling’. We are used to hearing about how women in the workplace can lack confidence, but as I have already alluded to, often the bigger stumbling block and perhaps even the cause, misconstrued as a confidence issue, is women actively choosing not to progress to more senior positions due to the conflict they fear will be created between their career and family life. There is no need for this to be the case in my eyes and as well as businesses, society itself needs to look at and question this.
All the time that women accept and are expected to accept the default position of primary caregiver and/or household manager, we will continue to struggle to reach the top in the business world. Men and women can function equally as well in roles at work and at home and yet that’s not what we’re seeing. As an example, all the data suggest that women are still responsible for the vast majority of domestic chores, including cooking meals in the home, but contrast that with the lists of the most celebrated chefs in the world, which are consistently almost all men.
My husband took a break in his career to become the primary carer for our family when my business took off and in fact a significant number of the senior women I know are supported by their partners assuming the role of CHO (Chief Household Officer2)! It’s something we need to talk about more as it’s still not widely seen as a desirable option in society. Witness the pitifully low take-up by fathers of shared parental leave. I’m certainly not saying that it’s impossible for both partners to have simultaneously successful careers as that’s clearly not the case, or that women shouldn’t choose looking after their families over their career. If that’s genuinely their choice, they should be fully supported in making it. But if there is a choice to be made, does it have to be the female partner, or given all the obstacles and inertia, does it just seem like the easier option?

Is there a woman, living or deceased, that has inspired you?
There is someone who was a real inspiration to me earlier on in my career – Margot James, who is now a conservative MP. She was co-owner of Shire Hall, the first specialist healthcare communications company in the UK and the first agency I worked for after leaving the ‘client side’. She set a powerful example as a female entrepreneur and in the way behaved as a leader. She was admired by and inspiring to all who worked with her and one of the best bosses I ever had.

What are your thoughts as we look ahead?
I truly believe that if the concept of ‘work’ was invented today, practices and attitudes would be very different and not dictated by the often outmoded habits of our past. As one of the two female co-founders of Virgo Health back in 2003, our company proved that even fifteen years ago it was possible to be highly flexible, family-friendly and super-successful.
Yes, flexible working arrangements are becoming increasingly commonplace for a lot of us and there are stand-out examples of completely new models being created, especially by innovative start-ups. We have the technology, we just need the will and determination that our forebears had 100 years ago!
With more people seeking a healthier work/life balance, not to mention a burgeoning ageing population to care for, juggling a career and family life will become more rather than less of a challenge for everyone and those businesses who fully recognise and adapt for this will undoubtedly gain competitive advantage.
In the years to come I believe equality will only be reached when it really works both ways – when we tell girls and boys that the options and even obligations ahead of them in life are the same, at work, at home and in general, regardless of gender. The body of evidence suggests that despite some of our best efforts, this is still not happening.
I have two sons and I’m very aware of the messages and morals they absorb from the world around them. Attitudes towards equality are harboured from a young age and even if not overt or intentionally harmful, social norms leave their mark. For us to re-gain the momentum of change, we need to challenge the social norm. This applies to all of us; men, women, children, businesses and society.

1. According to the latest figures from the Hampton-Alexander review, which date from November 2017
2. Credit to Brenda Trenowden, Global Chair of the 30% Club and Head of FIG Europe, ANZ Bank, from whom I first heard this title.