Speaking up when you’re the only woman at the table
With International Women’s Day celebrated across our schools at the beginning of March we have been reflecting on the many inspirational former pupils who have left The Mary Erskine School and gone on to make a positive mark on the world.
Heather Barr left MES in 1993 and we were delighted that she was able to find time in her busy schedule to chat to two of our Business Studies pupils about her career at Deutsche Bank, where she has risen to become Global Head of HR for the Chief Financial Office, and the work she is doing to promote disabled children’s rights in Africa.
Anna and Hannah joined the interview, conducted on MS Teams, with their mind’s set to investigate what it is like to be a woman in a global company today, as well as the role her MES education had in getting her to where she is now.
Heather offered valuable advice for pupils at MES including tips for being confident in the workplace, something which she believes MES helped her to embrace from a young age:
Is working for a global company as exciting as it sounds?
Yes, I really enjoy it. I’ve been at Deutsche Bank for almost my entire career of 21 years. What’s great about a global company is the fact that it is incredibly complex. Particularly in an HR role I have to think about different legislation across the globe and how it might affect different workplaces or fit in with cultural norms.
Working with a global company also presents the opportunity to work abroad, which is a real draw for many people. Although I have had this opportunity a number of times, the timing has never been quite right, but I know many colleagues who have gained a lot through those experiences. The size of the company means I have also been able to rotate through a number of different roles and positions without leaving Deutsche, so I have had a number of different experiences within the company which keeps life interesting.
What attracted you to the job you’re in now?
Good question - I actually didn’t land this job in the typical way that you might expect, through a graduate programme for example.
I actually completed a degree in psychology and considered continuing my studies in neuro-psychology, but I felt I was ready to start working rather than enter more education right away. I decided to take a year out after university to work in Jamaica, and on my return I decided to do a post-grad diploma in Human Resource Management at Strathclyde University. When I finished this course, I decided on a whim to move to London and started temping as an HR administrator at Deutsche Bank. After around 6 weeks, I was told that they wanted to keep me on and train me.
I didn’t have a burning ambition to work in Financial Services when I first graduated, rather I found myself there.
We’ve all been in lockdown throughout 2020, what would you say was the most challenging thing you faced in your job during this time?
The biggest challenges I faced were keeping my team motivated and feeling ‘together’ even when we were apart. It was important to acknowledge that everyone has their own challenges with COVID that may be different from your own.
Do you think you’ve noticed a change in the make-up of your working environment over the last 20 years? Do you think it is becoming more inclusive?
Yes, I definitely have. Although we still have a way to go, particularly in Financial Services, it’s great to have more female role models in my line of work now. There is a real focus on creating a working environment where everyone belongs, where everyone feels they can be themselves and ultimately feels able to achieve their full potential.
As a woman specifically, the workplace certainly feels like a very different environment to work in now.
What advice to you have for young women at The Mary Erskine School today who might be aiming for a job like yours?
I would say keep working hard. Be prepared to put in hard work and graft, even after you leave school. Although I was not a stand-out student when I was at MES, I worked hard and was encouraged to keep working, even if I didn’t find something easy. It’s also important to consider your experiences outside of the classroom too, like taking up a sport or some charity work, which help to make yourself a more rounded individual and certainly help to set you up for a career and life after school, wherever that may be.
We did some investigating on you, Heather, and saw you are on the board of trustees for the charity Able Child Africa. We wondered how you got involved with that charity?
Yes, I’ve been involved with them for around 2 and a half years now. I’ve been really lucky in being able to visit Africa on holiday a number of times for safaris, however, seeing the struggles that people have there during these visits really prompted me to find out how I could help by using my skillset outside of Deutsche Bank. I was passionate about supporting women’s health specifically, so spent a lot of time researching charities before finding Able Child Africa, a charity which helps various organisations across Africa to advocate for disabled children’s rights. Although not purely a women’s health charity, I am aware how difficult life in Africa is already without having a disability or caring for a child with disabilities. It has been a really enriching experience for me.
What challenges have you faced being a woman in a predominantly male oriented sector such as Finance?
I think that the hardest thing for me is that I am often the only woman at the table in many of my meetings with lots of senior men.
Sometimes it can feel hard to project your voice or interrupt when everyone else is talking. As a woman, our voices are naturally softer, so I have worked hard to project my voice without sounding ‘squeaky’ and make sure I am heard.
Do you think that there are more women taking senior roles in the sector?
Yes - there is now a lot of female talent at a senior level, but on that topic, I think it’s important to point out that we should also focus on the number of women at the beginning of their careers. Change actually starts a lot earlier!
I worry about how to get more women enjoying STEM subjects at school and at university. It is important we promote these subjects and the careers places like Deutsche Bank can offer to girls. We need to empower them to be able to make those choices, or get them thinking about technology and coding at that stage.
Do you think that MES being a girls school helped you to be more confident in the workplace?
I think that learning in a girls school made a real difference for me. Crucially, the environment helped to build my confidence. I see confidence holding many women back in the workplace. Women have just as much to offer but often do not have the same levels of confidence as men – we all need to teach ourselves to become more confident, which is something that MES empowered me to do from a young age.
What is your favourite MES memory?
I had a really great group of friends at school which made my whole school experience enjoyable. I have a lot of fond memories, like getting to Sixth Form and finally being allowed to use the common room! I was part of the curling team which I really enjoyed too.
Lastly, who inspires you to keep going?
There’s not any one person or ‘thing’, but I came into HR to make sure people feel happy, fulfilled and challenged at work. So when I feel like I’m making a positive impact and a real difference that encourages me to keep going.
Outside of work, I’m a big fan of David Attenborough and his tireless energy and passion. Jane Goodall, who at a young age went to Africa to work with chimpanzees, inspires me with her bravery. And I do love The Rock! His work ethic is amazing, but he has remained humble.
Thank you, Heather, for your time and insight. We wish you all the best in your career at Deutsche Bank.