We need more female leaders in recruitment - Nicky Acuna Ocana

Why I am passionate about encouraging more women to take on senior leadership roles in recruitment

Published on 7th March 2019

International Women’s Day has given me the opportunity to focus on what leaders in recruitment are doing to encourage more women to achieve leadership goals.

The recruitment industry currently has a distinct lack of females in senior leadership positions. This shouldn’t be the case as there are plenty of women working in the industry, just not in these senior level roles.

This needs to change.

I am incredibly passionate about encouraging more women to achieve their potential and inspire women in the workplace to realise their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Talking to my daughter recently about what she would like to be when she grows up, there was no hesitation. She said. “I want to be a Politician and then Prime Minister, so I can impact what is happening in the country and influence other people to be better and achieve more.”

It made me think back to my own aspirations as a child.

Much to my family’s merriment, from a very young age, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had 2 clear career aspirations; to be an astronaut or a manager.

Growing up watching my family run several businesses, I was struck with the realisation that by investing in people and working with them to encourage, mentor and develop, you can have a huge impact on someone’s life.

As I grew older and my travel sickness soon quashed my aspirations to fly to the moon, I became increasingly convinced that management was the path I would follow.

Luckily enough I was accepted on to an Executive Management Scheme for a brand leading retail organisation and joined after graduating from University. I rocked up to take over the world and to be an amazing manager. It really was a baptism by fire!

At times I managed huge teams of every age, gender and background with very little practical or life experience.

I learnt the hard way that management is tough.

I made lots of mistakes but learnt from them. Self-reflection became my mantra. I quickly realised that managing people was a skill, everyone needed to be managed differently and I had to adapt my style accordingly.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger….I built an enormous amount of tenacity and resilience during this period and although at times it felt impossible, due to the help and support of a particular manager at the time, I continued to develop and improve and I will be forever grateful for the  investment in me by my manager and for the learning curve I experienced.

In my situation, I had a male manager who was able to develop and support me and he did the same for everyone in his team, regardless of their gender.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

I have heard anecdotal stories from female friends and colleagues about how their bosses have undermined them or actively supported men through promotions, either through unconscious bias or, even worse, consciously, due to the fact that in the future “they may want children and will want to take a year off”. Luckily, I have never received such direct discrimination but there are some real horror stories out there!

After leaving retail and joining the wonderful world of recruitment, I gradually developed from being a manager into being a leader, two very different things. I am proud to be a female leader within the recruitment industry although there aren’t as many of us at the senior level, which is something the industry needs to change.

To quote Margaret Thatcher, ‘If you want something done ask a woman. If you want someone to make a speech, ask a man.’

There is definitely still a difference in how men and women typically approach things. You’ve probably heard the statistic that is commonly quoted in dozens of articles that; “men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them”.

I find this fascinating, especially when you consider the fact that women are breaking through so many barriers to reach their career goals and that more women than men suffer from imposter syndrome, the feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It strikes smart, successful people. Often appearing after a notable accomplishment.

How do we overcome this and what can be done to encourage more women to reach leadership roles in recruitment?

Speaking from personal experience, there has to be a recognition that you can’t do it all by yourself.

To be successful you need to have a fantastic team working with you and be open to communicating and listening to advice and suggestions.

The more senior you get in any role, the less likely you will receive regular feedback. You are judged on results. What does the bottom line look like? What is your retention rate? How have you developed your teams and what is the next business opportunity?

This is the reality of running and growing a business.

I am a great believer in working with mentors and coaches.

All the consultants at Ambition are given a mentor and the management team work with an executive coach, as do I. Personal development is incredibly important at any stage in your career. You can’t do everything by yourself. Take help where offered, find support and assistance from different areas.

There also needs to be a recognition that at different times in your life, you might need to tread water.

Before I had children, my career was a priority. I was focused on and determined to become a Director before I was 30 and I achieved my goal. I was then lucky enough to have children, 2 years apart. Unfortunately, both were premature, one born at 27 weeks, and for a period of time, I had to put my career aspirations on hold.

I took the decision to join Ambition as an Associate Director, a step down from my previous roles as a Director, to enable me to have the ability to still do the job I loved and enjoyed but at a more junior level, whilst my children were younger and needed more care.

As my children have grown up, I have been able to once again dedicate more time to my career and in doing something that I am incredibly passionate about, have grown Professional Services at Ambition in the UK.

I have continued to work flexibly throughout this time but with the recognition that sometimes I do have to work longer hours. I let the kids (and my long-suffering husband) know when I am having a busy work week and make sure that I have the weekend free to spend with them at the end of a more intense work period.

Support is essential to achieving a successful career. 

Being open to asking for and receiving help, when needed, sets a positive mindset for all levels within the business. At times, you will need flexibility, other times you may need to put in longer hours at work. This doesn’t need to be in the office, it could be when you are at home, when you have put the kids to bed or come back from the gym.

Find a company that is inclusive and genuinely believes in supporting women’s careers, reach out to other women, offer them support and be prepared to ask for and accept support yourself.

Look at role models who can help with your development and set your sights on achieving whatever ambition you set yourself.

I am incredibly lucky to be part of Ambition, an organisation that prides itself on Building Better Futures for candidates, clients and employees and that supports women both directly and indirectly through offering support, mentoring and flexibility.

As an industry we need to get more women leaders in recruitment to model behaviours and allow people to reach their personal goals and aspirations and to provide examples of what a true inclusive and diverse workforce looks like.