Interview with a leading women
Cheryl Thornton

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In this interview, Cheryl Thornton, HR Director - People & Performance at a Major Retail Group, shares her experience of gender diversity in the workplace and details her progression into a leadership role.


1. Tell us about your progression into your leadership role

My career began in Australia where I worked in Aviation and Retail for over a decade across the APAC region. This equipped me with a robust HR foundation through operating within diverse workforces across multiple locations and countries. In 2005 I moved to Dubai to broaden my international career experience in an emerging market. The last ten years has provided both exciting and challenging green-field opportunities. This included broadening my industry experience into real estate and banking and the opportunity to work for some of the leading regional conglomerates. It has also enabled me to develop a specialist skills set in talent management, performance management, engagement and organisation design. My current role has particular emphasis on transformation, performance management, innovation and implementation of HR Technology.

2. Did you always aspire to reach a leadership role in your career?

Reaching a leadership position has been a natural career progression for me. With each role, my leadership capabilities evolved thus enabling me to manage people and teams more effectively. Subsequently I have held senior HR leadership roles across multiple industries in MEA and APAC regions. My style is focused on being an outcomes-based business partner and assuming stewardship of the HR strategy development and execution aligned to business requirements.

3. In your opinion is there a difference between how men and women plan to progress in their careers?

Regrettably there are still differences in opportunities offered to women versus men. This does vary across organisations, industries and geographies and globally the gap has reduced through government legislation and companies introducing diversity and inclusion policies, initiatives and programmes. Gender inequalities remain in place because there is no consistent approach across the professional landscape to qualifying talent, irrespective of gender, thus leaving many companies to rely on legacy approaches that often perpetuate gender disparity in the workplace.

4. Do you think that there are any differences within the industry in which you work?

I believe gender equality to be one of the most challenging issues across most industries as it takes time and a lot of commitment from many stakeholders inside and outside of a company to address. The retail industry is no different to any other industry with respect to diversity and inclusion. Retail tends to attract more females than males at junior levels however, similar to other industries, males still dominate senior leadership roles and pay inequality remains, especially in management.

5. Have you encountered any gender linked challenges in your career?

I am fortunate to have had key people and mentors in my professional network supporting my career choices and development. I have always been proactive to drive my own continuous professional development (CPD) through higher education and short courses. This has been further complemented by establishing personal credibility in the wider HR and business communities as a regular keynote speaker at conferences, participation in mentoring programmes (both as a mentor and mentee), networking and acquiring relevant HR professional qualifications/ memberships. In summary I never stop learning and this has given me access to a wider choice of senior HR roles across various industries similar to my male counterparts.

6. In your experience, do you think women have the same career opportunities as men?

Traditional gender diversity is usually assessed based on compliance with a government legislation and HR policy, however this hasn’t changed the issues encountered in pay inequalities, the low percentage of women in leadership roles or high female employee turnover. To some extent career opportunities have increased for women however, many companies are oblivious to the fact that they have a gender pay gap or that they are overlooking women when it comes to training and career opportunities especially in senior management. One of the most significant reasons for the disparities is tied to parenthood with female employees typically taking time out from their careers to be full-time carers and when resuming employment, are often taking lower level positions (and pay) because they have more care-giving responsibilities than their male counterparts. Success going forward will be heavily weighted on female employees’ retention, pay equity, career opportunities to senior leadership roles and access to training and leadership development.

7. Have you noticed any differences in career opportunities for men and women based on geography?

Globally there is a plethora of research demonstrating a strong correlation between a company’s strong financial performance and higher female representation in senior executive and board roles. The Middle East region faces the same challenges as any other region. In 2016 the UAE Government announced top priority will be given to “increase female participation in society” with bodies such as the UAE Gender Balance Council and Dubai Women Establishment set-up, and further through the adoption of legislation and policies that support women to achieve this goal. Such initiatives are innovative and inspirational for all women in the UAE.

8. Do you think flexible working has any bearing on career progression opportunities for women or men?

Culturally it is often viewed that employees who work longer hours are dedicated and efficient, which puts those with childcare responsibilities, at a disadvantage. Companies that offer more flexible workplaces will help to retain more female employees giving opportunities such as reducing turnover costs, increased productivity and helping to institutionalize intellectual property and knowledge transfer.

9. Going forward, what more do you think can be done to create a culture that enables women to thrive in their careers?

There is no single solution to gender equality. It is an ongoing effort and HR plays a pivotal role in shaping culture and process. Embracing diversity and inclusion starts from the top with leadership teams influencing key decisions around opportunities and initiatives for female employees. In the age of “big data”, gender inequality in the workplace should change for the better as companies face increasing pressures to be compliant and report on their diversity and inclusion performance. Metrics need to become transparent in the talent pipeline (with sufficient numbers of both women and men in the hiring process), compensation, internal promotions, attrition, engagement (work-life balance and employee satisfaction), and performance. HR must implement a consistent method to drive equity in these areas and ensure rating, ranking and qualifying of talent in order to reduce gender bias.

10. Do you have any advice for female professionals who are in, or are looking to progress to a leadership role?

As professional females, we can contribute to making our working lives better by compartmentalising our professional and personal lives (don’t feel guilty!), being part of a women’s support network, sharing or delegating tasks to others, and most importantly; by demonstrating that what matters the most is productivity and quality of work, not the hours spent in the office.