When Etta Cohen set up Forward Ladies in 1999, the theme of International Women’s Day was “World Free of Violence Against Women”. However, back then, Cohen wanted to do something about better supporting women in business – having observed the challenges from her roles in the public sector.
It all began when, as part of her job to better connect the public sector with the private, she was having lunch with a female bank manager. Feeling their conversation was useful, supportive and not happening often enough, Cohen felt inviting others to join next time would be beneficial.
From that one lunch, Forward Ladies was set up and it now supports more than 1,300 business women across the country. Her achievements in leveraging the experiences of successful women in business, at both large and small organisations, has led to an OBE – handed to her by business minister Margot James.
Speaking exclusively to Real Business, Cohen said she was “overwhelmed” by the recognition and the way she was treated during a ceremony in London – but was quick to add what she hoped to use the OBE for.
“You can achieve whatever you want to if you try hard. I was a one-parent family and brought up two children on my own having been left in challenging circumstances,” she said.
“I can use this [OBE] to say I never expected this in my wildest dreams, but isn’t it amazing what can happen. You have to think positively and deal with that little voice in your head which is very good at telling you negatives – and not positives.”
James, who became business minister in July 2016, told us: “This honour is a tribute to Etta’s outstanding commitment to raising the profile of women in the work place. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember how much more successful our economy is thanks to the increased contribution of women.
“We need more women making decisions at the top of business, and people like Etta have the drive and vision to help make that happen.”
The world for women in business is a markedly different one today than when Cohen first set up Forward Ladies in 1999. She remembered very little being truly all inclusive, where whoever you were, whatever level you sat at, regardless the size of your business, you were included in the debate.
“Our ethos was helping you to get to the next stage. We had people working at home and those running big businesses,” she explained. “Ladies would come in on their own, there was no criteria for joining – only that you wanted to learn and help.”
The remit of Forward Ladies grew as members began to leverage their skills for the wider organisation. Before long training days on specific skills were put on, followed by all-female trade missions to certain locations.
The strength and success of Forward Ladies, Cohen told us, was in recognising that the term “networking” does not mean selling – rather making connections and finding out how you can help someone else.
Looking at International Women’s Day, which this year has the theme of “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”, Cohen said the thinks it is very important to celebrate success wherever it comes from – male or female.
However, she did have some observations about how future initiatives and actions should be led. “I’m going to an International Women’s Day event this afternoon, and we’ll be discussing the same issues. So why are we not dealing with this? Confidence is one topic we’ll discuss, another being have we lost the next generation. But we’ve had these discussions many times before.
“For me, it is about saying what are we doing to make a difference on the impact to young people. What we don’t need is more consultations and surveys as to what is in need of change as we’ve had loads of those before.”
Cohen put it simply and effectively when she said: “We should move from conversation to action.”
The data is there she feels, to direct the kind of changes required. If those have been trialled, then the topics of debate must be altered from what must change to why efforts haven’t worked out as first hoped.
“For me, we need to get into schools – long before the mindset of ‘I can’t do it’ sets in. We need to show children the options and choices available in employment,” she added.
Rather than simplifying sectors such as the medical world to simply doctors and nurses, Cohen wants to use role models and mentors to show there are many more options available in fields than first imagined.
Cohen’s message throughout was a profound one. “If I can do it, anyone can.” For this new OBE recipient, this mantra is meant for both men and women. But, on International Women’s Day, it should serve as evidence of what is possible if you simply put your mind to it.