Tara Cemlyn-Jones takes aim at the gender gap
Fintech specialist and former investment banker Tara Cemlyn-Jones co-founded the 25x25 initiative with a target of 25 female FTSE 100 CEOs by 2025. She talks to Lysanne Currie about the progress made and the critical role of data
Just over two years ago, prior to pandemic lockdowns, a group of women, mainly senior finance professionals, sat down for dinner. During the course of their meal, they discussed the very small number of female CEOs. Far too small. According to a report this January from the Fawcett Society, Britain’s foremost gender equality charity, progress is “glacial”. And so, during supper, some of those at the table decided to do something about it. They would have conversations with senior recruitment firms, pick their brains, and ask, well, why? Why is the gender gap particularly marked in the FTSE 100? And how are we going to fix it?
One of the women was Tara Cemlyn-Jones, who, in March 2020, with co-founders Dame Inga Beale and Kerry Dryburgh, created the 25x25 initiative. The three had a vision: by 2025 there should be at least 25 female CEOs at FTSE 100 companies. The drive, assisted by partners TheCityUK, 30% Club and the Investor Forum, was to be run by women but supported by corporates. So far, more than 20 of them, including BP, Unilever, NatWest and Morgan Stanley, have signed up, as well as 500 individual experts. “They all wanted to join,” she says, “because we do need to get this critical mass.”
Cemlyn-Jones says her own background was “very traditional”, starting as a strategy consultant, before joining investment banker Schroders – “very much my alma mater. There was a great community there, which became my first really strong network.” Despite her rapid promotion, however, the early 1990s “was not a period when gender considerations really came into play… women at Schroders weren’t very connected as a network. That stuck with me.”
She left banking for ecommerce when Lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman, a friend from university, offered her a job. “He’d been showing me various business plans for Lastminute.com,” she says. “Then he said, ‘Look, we really need someone to scale up. We’ve got funding, we’re going to IPO – this is a good time to join.’ So I did. I had a very exciting experience.”
If her focus at Schroders had been on capital markets, at Lastminute.com it was mostly M&A – 16 acquisitions in three years, and up to 100 potential targets over the same period. As well as being “a completely different way of working” something else struck her – there were three women and three men in the leadership team. “The organisation as a whole was much more diverse,” she says. “It was completely balanced. And we had some strong women on the board.” Advisers included American venture capitalist and “queen of the internet” Mary Meeker, then at Morgan Stanley. “It was a completely different experience of the world,” she recalls.
Then Lastminute.com was sold and life changed again for Cemlyn-Jones. She got married, moved to Spain, had a baby and worked with big private equity companies on M&A (“also a very different working environment because every mother worked”). From 2009, now living in Portugal, she returned to investment banking and became increasingly involved in fintech, setting up TCJ Fintech Advisory. “It really became my area of specialist interest,” she says.
On her return to the UK in 2020, two things stood out. First, the network of women was significantly larger: “I’d been living abroad for 17 years and the landscape had changed in terms of the number of women around. In government, for example, the number of female MPs had increased significantly. It’s now 34% women overall, with Labour having achieved parity [104 of 202 Labour MPs in the present Parliament are women]. Also in areas of the judiciary, such as tribunal judges, it was around 50%.” Second, however, she looked at the leadership of major companies. “We were around 5% women in the FTSE 100 [the figure has since risen to 8%]. And we’re still at around 5% in the FTSE 350,” she says.
Seeds of change
That planted the seed for 25x25: “We sat down and said, ‘What should we do about it?’ There were two routes open: one was government-led, another corporate-led. We surveyed the chairs of the FTSE 100 and discovered that, according to the data, when CEOs and leadership teams had taken accountability for [gender diversity], women were supported, given the right opportunities at the right time and considered as management material. Where that accountability didn’t exist, women weren’t coming through. A very similar type of white, male candidate came through again and again. We soon realised the corporate lead would be more effective than a government lead at this stage.”
After speaking to 200 corporates, the response was unanimous. The initiative would require corporate funding and the support infrastructure that goes with it. “We needed to get a statistically significant number of companies working on this so that it’s sustainable in the long term,” she says. “Our initial members and sponsors said, ‘Yes, absolutely, we’re up for this, we think it’s important.’ And we launched in November 2021.”
Initial questions for corporations included: what is the board doing in terms of the talent pipeline? How does the nominations committee operate? What is being done in terms of structure or support? Ultimately, of course, it’s not just about CEOs – it’s about changing the culture. “It’s crucial that these strong female role models are genuinely different, don’t all come from the same background or look or sound the same,” says Cemlyn-Jones. “We need that if we are to create a better, fairer work environment.”
The key, she says, is to ensure the door is open: “Our approach is to encourage each company to set targets that are commensurate with their level of development. What we’re looking for is progress, rather than a box-ticking exercise.
“If an organisation feels the only way it’s going to get its managers to react is by remunerating them, then maybe that is the appropriate course to follow. What’s more critical for us is to be looking at the pathways to see how they manifest themselves, whether there is inherent discrimination against women coming through. And we’ve seen that happening in a lot of cases – the way that the job spec is set up, the way panel interviews take place.”
The role of data
Measurement plays an increasingly significant role for 25x25, which is currently developing data tools – one for public data, another for private benchmarking. “People will be asked questions and be held to account if they categorically refuse to be involved,” she says. “[But] everything that we produce will be encouraging, rather than beating people up. The public data tool is really an aim to find the metrics which we feel are reasonable and that the industry should follow.”
Meanwhile, the private benchmarking data tool is a predictive algorithm to map the progress of people coming through. The next step, she says, is getting accountants to scrutinise the data and use it to make different strategic decisions: “Finance professionals will need to have access to these human capital tracking tools, because they will be the metric of success in the future.”
A self-professed optimist, Cemlyn-Jones believes the way we define success will change dramatically. “Look at the younger generation,” she says. “As they hit the workforce, they’re very conscious they will probably have to work longer, and so will require happier working environments. The bottom line is, profitability will always be a leading factor. But if you cannot make your work environment a happy and healthy place, you won’t attract the best talent. And your ability to innovate or grow will be hit.”
She’s pragmatic, too, about the mountain 25x25 must climb: “When you’ve decided to undertake change, there’s that lovely feeling that ‘we’re going to start something new, something transformative’. That’s very encouraging. Then there’s the actual delivery and execution process, which is more painful. Then you come through that trough to a better place. It’s much better than it was at the start.
“We’ve all had two incredibly tough years [with the pandemic], which has really weighed people down: on both a personal and mental health level. And for the business environment, it’s been very tough for everyone. But I’ve seen positive things coming out of this, such as remote and hybrid [working] which I think has really benefited a lot of women.”
Cemlyn-Jones remains hugely enthused by the “collective effort from the 750 people already involved with 25x25 who want to change the world. I don’t like singling people out, because I really think that’s one of the things that we are trying to change: we work as a whole and we work for each other. They really inspire me. It’s an incredible journey.”
ICAS training partner BPP offers a range of courses on equality, diversity and inclusion.