International Women’s Day: EOA shines spotlight on employee-owned businesses that put gender parity front and centre

To mark International Women’s Day 2023, the Employee Ownership Association (EOA) is shining a spotlight on two of our member businesses that are setting great examples when it comes to gender parity.

International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women and calls for gender parity as part of its mission to forge a gender equal world – with the theme this year being #EmbraceEquity.

Richmond & Towers

The London-based communications agency specialises in brand engagement, mainly in the food and drinks sector. It runs award-winning campaigns for clients to help “influence the way people eat and drink”, for example coining the phrase ‘plant-based eating’.

Richmond & Towers became 100% owned by its employees following its sale to an employee ownership trust (EOT) in 2019. Nikki Thomson – who has been with company over 20 years – stepped up from managing director to become CEO after its transition.

A business for women

CEO Nikki Thomson

The business was founded by two women – Suzanne Richmond and Marjorie Towers – in the 1930s, with Nikki stating: “We’ve always said that we were a business for women then and we’re a business for women now.”

“It’s the first time since then we’ve had a female CEO,” she says. “I’m immensely proud to hold that position and it’s very dear to my heart that we champion inclusivity.

“The communication industry, I would say, is predominantly very female. There are 30 people here and only five are men. However, historically it has been quite male dominated at a senior level, so we’re striving to change that.

“Today, we have a management team made up of more women than men, and the business feels more inclusive than ever.

“When we went EO, we looked at how we could get more people involved in running the business. It was a conscious decision to move to a broader management team, as historically we’d had a board of three.”

Recognition for focus on inclusivity

Becoming employee owned has helped give everyone a voice at Richmond and Towers and enabled the business to act on what people are saying.

One such request was to place an even greater focus on inclusivity, which led to the creation of a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Team. The business gets audited by the Public Relations Consultants Association and has since been praised for demonstrating best practice on DEI.

“We want to give people opportunities to develop and become future leaders, to demonstrate to people that these opportunities are open for women,” says Nikki.

“The great thing about International Women’s Day, as well as shining a spotlight on successful women, is that it demonstrates what is possible.”

White Ink Architects

Belfast-based White Ink Architects became the first wholly Northern Ireland-based consultancy to make the move to employee ownership when it transitioned in 2021.

Its owners sold their entire shareholding to an EOT in what was the award-winning company’s 20th year since being formed.

Joan McCoy is one of the founding directors at White Ink, and is also a past president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, a previous ‘Best Woman Architect’ winner at the European Women in Construction Awards, has been a STEM Ambassador to encourage young women into construction, and has tutored at Queen’s University Belfast.

“It’s important as a female to be a mentor, to encourage young people and talk to them about how to overcome challenges,” she says.

You can’t be what you can’t see

Founding Director Joan McCoy

Joan says White Ink Architects is “unusual”, in that 50% of its qualified architects are female, whereas she says the industry average is around 25-30%. She is “very proud we’re totally equal within the practice”.

She believes the best decisions are made whenever you’ve got a balanced view, adding that “diversity of opinion and approach is absolutely key”.

“I believe in this notion that you can’t be what you can’t see. So many young women, particularly in professions like construction, do not see who they can be,” she says.

“International Women’s Day is really important because it shows young women what they can be and that there are lots of ways to succeed.

“The more we can encourage lots of different people with different requirements and abilities into business, the more we create a world that’s great for everybody, not just women.”

Employee ownership creates ‘safe space’ for conversations

Joan says the employee ownership sector has a “huge opportunity to show the world how it can be done”, and that the benefits of delivering ‘Good EO’ have helped White Ink make listening a priority.

“Since we became employee owned, we’ve introduced a lot of flexibility into how we work to help everyone, not just women, because we’ve listened to what was important to staff,” Joan explains.

“There have been a lot of very open conversations. Employee ownership encourages those conversations and creates a safe space to have them.”

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