Pioneer conversations: Liz Nelson

Liz Nelson trained as a clinical psychologist before launching a career in market research. She founded Taylor Nelson Sofrès in 1965, later taking it public. She was awarded the OBE 1997. She was a non-executive of Royal Bank of Scotland for nine years, CEO of several charities. Today she is executive chairman of Fly Research: My Voice online panel and Q Research, the UK’s first mobile phone online market research business. 

What’s changed for women in the workforce during your career?

We no longer feel that we must pretend to be a man – to compartmentalise our personal and business life. I remember trying to get an overdraft agreed with our bank. I brought two male colleagues with me because I knew the bank manager did not approve of women on boards. I was careful to dress in a dark suit; we were just three guys.

If one of the children was ill, I would ring in and say that I was ill. I wouldn’t dream of saying that I was staying away from work because my baby was not well. We all felt that one couldn’t express oneself or mention real skills such as consensuality, incorporating values into the organisation. The likes of Margaret Heffernan was not around to give the evidence that having women on boards usually leads to better ROI.

What’s the biggest change in terms of women’s ability to progress in business?

Playing to our strengths. As much as I believe the new “academic” subject of Behavioural Economics is a bit of a joke, it has helped to persuade employers to employ and promote women, insofar as the part played by emotionality in decision making is now more respected.

Is there still room for progress?

The sad bit is that we – the older women – have not managed well the expectations of women under the age of 40.

I know it’s an unpopular view, but unfortunately a woman can’t do it all. I defy any successful female entrepreneur or senior busineswoman to state that she has, and can do it all – a wonderful wife, a wonderful mother, a wonderful businesswomen.

It is elitist to say this, but I believe passionately that women in the UK must get full-time help from a nanny (or wait until the UK brings in Scandinavian-style childcare) or don’t marry or don’t have children…

Imagine the damage that a small business suffers when a brilliant woman disappears for months. This does not mean that that women should not chose to be at home rather than work, but she will need extra coaching and training in the fast-moving industries. Women cannot assume that that if they can take 12 months’ maternity leave, they can then fly as high, or as quickly as the men who have not taken the 12 months off.

As an entrepreneurial woman do you see a renaissance in women leading new businesses and industries?

Oh yes, there is evidence that women are making up a high percentage of the SME start-ups. This has been true in several recessions, I understand. Women decide, “I can do this better than others do”. I see many more women seeking venture capital and angel money.

I am delighted that my own company, Fly, has been ahead in attracting women with small children who want to work from home. New technology allows this. Several of our senior research women will or have already started their own business. As Margaret Heffernan has pointed out from her research, women are ambitious and courageous. Starting a new venture is not too much a barrier for them. I would add that women are not daunted by failure and many of us are saying “you learn from your mistakes”. Women will now network in ways they never did before and they gain strength from others.

Who’s most inspired you in your career?

I was 20 years old, had just set foot in UK and ended up at the Maudsley Hospital to study clinical psychology. Andrew Ehrenburg, certainly one of the cleverest statisticians, who worked in the UK came at the same time. He had just learned that he had failed to gain his PhD from Cambridge. But what a stimulus that turned out to be. He lectured to budding psychiatrists and psychologists and exposed them to both the rubbish and the gems of statistical analysis. Failure made him a success. He later entered the market research world and became famous globally.

I should also mention Ken Dickinson, the HR Director at Mars. In the sixties Ken was positively discriminating in favour of women when when recruiting and pushing women to get high-status executive jobs.

How do you rate the Coalition government’s proactivity in encouraging women in business?

I have mentioned my disappointment with the Davies Report. I will rejoice when a government sets up high-quality infant and child care available to all mothers who want to work. On the positive side, more politicians in the coalition are aware that it is a preponderance of women starting businesses. Some have pushed the message that companies, where the boards have a significant percentage of women, do better than companies which do not have this mixture. Individual members of the Cabinet have talked about the necessary coaching and mentoring of women.

If I were in government I would encourage women to look for employment in organisations which respect them and their values. I would promote the idea that the road to achieving a senior role in business might be via the voluntary or public sector. If women have obvious skills in a business function such as marketing, finance, human resources, brand development, new product development, then they could move to a board position in the voluntary/public sector. Women need that board experience.

What motivates you to continue to push the boundaries and build your current business?

I love market research and. as I said before. I welcome the opportunity to work with women who use their experience in Fly to do their own thing.

However, my main motivation is to improve the standards in market research; to ensure that the industry promotes actively its Code of Standards; and that the DIY untrained people, saying that they are doing market research surveys, will be exposed for what they are. Some of them are “suggers” – those who sell under the guise of market research. How many of us have had phone calls with the introductions that, “ I’m doing market research and I am not selling anything”…. then at the end s/he says, “Thank you and in a few moments my supervisor will phone to give you price comparisons to show you how the money you spend compares with the suppliers.” This situation will be multiplied many times over when mobile apps are used by more in the UK.

Apart from suggers, there are those saying they are doing a survey among Facebook participants or make up their own questions using software available on the internet. This pretend market research is rotten for the market research industry.

I would like to bring into this country the same restriction that applies in Germany: define what market research is and prosecute all who are selling under the guise of market research. Prosecute those who do not abide by the Code of Standards of the Market Research Society. The equivalent of the MRS in Germany has brought prosecutions against six organisations and has won the cases.

First Women Awards: Nominations are open for the First Women Awards until April 13. The awards, created by Real Business and the CBI, recognise pioneering women whose achievements open opportunities for others. Nominations can be made in a number of categories. 

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