Read Alexandra Shulman’s incredible speech from the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards
28th Nov 2019
Alexandra Shulman was the editor of British Vogue from 1992-2017. During her time at Vogue, she was awarded BSME Editor of the Year, PPA Editor of the Year 2016 and the WGSN Future 2016 Outstanding Achievement Award. She was granted an OBE in the 2005 New Year’s honours for her services to the magazine industry and a CBE in the Queen’s 2018 New Years honours. She is currently a contributor to The Times, Daily Mail, Guardian and Daily Telegraph and has written two novels.
On Monday, November 25, Alexandra joined IMAGE as co-presenter of this year’s Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Her speech, which covered everything from female beauty standards to the struggles women routinely face in the business world, silenced the room. It was difficult not to feel empowered by her impassioned words. Here we’re sharing Alexandra’s speech in full
I have to confess to being in awe of this audience – because we are here tonight to celebrate the achievements of women in business; women of conviction, spirit, daring, competence, imagination and determination. Women who know that the buck stops with them. Women who make things happen.
That’s a pretty impressive group. But then Ireland has long pulled its weight in this department, with two impressive former female presidents, and women like Dee Forbes, Anne O’Leary and Sinéad McSweeney, who is with us this evening.
When I consider some of the most successful women in business that I have come across, I realise that it is their conviction which marks them out. Someone like Natalie Massenet, who started Net-a-Porter at a time no one thought you could sell expensive clothes online. But Natalie was determined she could make her vision a reality (and who, incidentally, with my infallible talent spotting, I once turned down for a job at Vogue).
Or Chrissie Rucker, who for many years used to work with my younger brother on Harper’s Bazaar and who said to him one day, “I’ve had this idea about starting a company that only sells white sheets – do you want to help me?”
And to whom he replied, “What kind of a cockamamie idea is that? Listen, I know you’re bored, but don’t give up the day job.” A woman who again was convinced of her dream and founded The White Company, which continues to grow and defy market trends. Or even somebody like Donatella Versace, who after her brother Gianni’s murder had to immediately step into the breach and move from the muse to the motivator. They all share a real conviction and positivity.
And they need to because one of the things that I find curious and really quite remarkable about women and business is that those two words together, even now, are still thought of as something extraordinary. That even in this age, we are still not quite at the point where women and business are considered so commonplace that there is nothing especially noteworthy about the pairing. After all, we are not at this splendid occasion to pay any attention at all to men in business. I’m not sure that there are any men in business award ceremonies.
Justification and recognition
My professional career has been in fashion and media, both industries where I have been lucky enough to have worked with wonderful people of both sexes, very many of them, of course, women, and very, very few of them right at the top.
Let me say here that the male colleagues I had in Condé Nast, and those who were my direct bosses, never made me feel in some way lesser for being a woman, but even so, it is somewhat baffling that not a single one of the people at the pinnacle of the business, rather than the creative side of the publishers, were women, despite this being a business primarily directed at women.
And if you consider the big fashion conglomerates like LVMH, Kering – not only are their heads men, but the vast majority of the CEOs heading up their brands, from Dior to Louis Vuitton, Gucci to Bottega Veneta, are men. And in the beauty and perfume houses, practically all the chief executives remain male. Despite, of course, so many of the original founders being entrepreneurial women, like Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein.
So despite the huge moves that are being made, there is still a way to go for real parity. And still a real justification for the recognition gained through events like this.
You know, the other night, I was watching the electoral debates – the wildly unimpressive Johnson and Corbyn double act, where each vied with the other to make the same point the most times; and then the follow-up programme with the smaller parties – and I was trying to analyse my reaction to Jo Swinson’s performance (full disclosure: I am broadly a Lib Dem sympathiser), and I realised to my horror how much more emphasis I put on her appearance than I did on either of the Tory or Labour leaders. Hmm – yellow dress and pink shoes? Did that have enough gravitas? Hair – would she have appeared a bit stronger if she had it pinned up?
Me… The person who has always said that the main issue in what you wear is that you should be comfortable in yourself. Me, the Vogue editor who was always being told she didn’t look like a Vogue editor – even after 25 years in the job.
The truth is that as women, our professional competence is subject to a different kind of scrutiny to that of men. One in which our appearance plays a greater role. I know you know. I’m sure you are aware of the hours that are spent getting blow-dries, manicures, pedicures, eyebrow threading, putting on your face, taking it off and putting it on again. Even if we like to take pride in our appearance, it still takes up a hell of a lot of time. Time which I don’t notice the men in my household having to take – though they’re both partial to a long lie in the bath, preferably with a good book.
But at the same time, fashion and beauty are empowering. They can make us feel good. When I was at Vogue, I realised how few role models there were of women who were successful in business and other professions who looked like they were able to have fun with their appearance. And it seemed then, and still seems now, something that is very important to address. If the only women young girls can see who are entitled to engage with the fun of fashion and beauty are models, singers, movie stars and reality TV show contestants, it’s not entirely surprising that at a young age, those seem the desirable options. That Amal Clooney, with her incredible wardrobe and impressive legal career, has a lot riding on her.
So I was always keen to encourage the professional women that we featured in the magazine to allow us to show them in this light. Whether that was someone like Nicola Sturgeon (who wore a Christopher Kane mini skirt for us) or the brilliant women engineers working on our Crossrail project, who posed in glamorous evening gowns on one page and hi vis, hard hats and boiler suits the next. The only one we couldn’t squeeze into a bit of Prada was Cressida Dick, Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who understandably felt she wanted to appear in uniform.
We want our young women to feel that being a professional, working in a business, being a leader is not incompatible with fashion, to being able to experiment with your style. It’s a small but, I think, important point.
In 2009, I was invited by Sarah Brown, Gordon’s wife, to join the day she was organising for what was called the “spouses” at the G20 Summit being held in London. There were 20 spouses there, and chief spouse was Michelle Obama, who arrived in the most glorious turquoise skirt, blue harlequin patterned cardigan, and fake eyelashes that stretched across the lunch table. “You can tell them I have a pink one too,” she told me when I asked her about the cardi. It was joyful to see a woman who unashamedly took pleasure in the way she dressed, and wonderful that she was going on to give a talk at a girls’ school in London’s East End, where the majority of pupils came from hugely disadvantaged families. I’m sure the way she looked was as inspiring as what she said to them. Certainly, it’s something I remember and felt inspired by.
Of course, being a woman in business, being a leader, is about so much more than how we look. It’s about finding a way of being that we are comfortable with, a way that encompasses the many roles that we are often juggling – the boss, the mother, the wife, the earner. And a way that also has a space for yourself, the part of you that isn’t defined by other people.
I have always found that when I remained truest to my real self – that was when I worked the best. For example, nobody likes to put their hand up and say that they don’t understand what is being talked about, but I think women, especially in the company of men, often find this particularly hard. That often, we are less inclined to speak unless we feel we are 100 per cent right. And these are challenges we set ourselves. Perhaps unnecessarily.
When I was overseeing the huge change that digital brought to magazine publishing, I was endlessly in meetings where I hadn’t the faintest clue what was being talked about, and mortifyingly when often the most junior person in the room clearly knew so much more. It was tempting to just keep quiet and hope I would catch up later, but actually, I found that it was far more effective to ask for an explanation then and there. In fact, everybody loved demonstrating how much more they knew.
We tend towards wanting to be liked. Women can easily slip into a default familiarity. But in our professional lives, we can’t be everyone’s friend. Our tendency to want to nurture, and care for people is one of our strengths as leaders, but at the same time can complicate our relationships. As women leaders, we are always trying to strike the balance between warmth and authority, a balance that is sometimes difficult.
And of course, how long have we got – the question of childcare, the family, the home. The other day, I was in the odd position of interviewing one of my bosses, Nicholas Coleridge, who had a book of memoirs being published. I asked him whether, as the head of a company where a good 75 per cent of the staff were women, it had ever entered his head that someone like me, as well as doing my job, had a constant ticker tape of domestic concerns going on. Is the fridge full? Is there any way to get the party bags for my son’s birthday party sorted in the lunch hour? That kind of thing. He said, after quite a long silence, that no, he had to admit that he hadn’t ever thought about that.
But then afterwards, having thought about it myself, I wondered whether really, did he need to? Did that, in the end, make any difference? I was judged on my performance at work, not what was happening in the background. And isn’t that what I and other women have been aiming for? To be treated as competing on an equal playing field?
So in conclusion, that is the future I want to see – a future with equality, but respect between the sexes. Not a future when women feel that because of their sex they have pulled the short straw. Not a future where women and men are placed on opposing sides of a battleground. Not a future where women have to be employed because we’re ticking some HR box and fulfilling a quota. But a future where glorious evenings like tonight are a celebration of that equality.
Read more: IMAGE Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Emma Reidy: ‘You can’t go it alone — you need to be part of a team’
Read more: Sinéad McSweeney, IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year 2019: ‘We need to rethink “lean in” and talk more about leaning out’
Read more: They’re here! The Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2019 winners are…
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