Samantha Frost CA, Director at Think Consulting and Think Wellbeing, discusses gender bias in the workplace, shifting attitudes towards career breaks, the power of mentoring and the pressure that’s placed on women to act as role models.
Why did you decide to become a CA?
A lot of us who studied economics at university didn’t know what we wanted to do when we left and thought it was sensible to do something that gets you a qualification and keeps your options open, so we went to the Big Four and started the CA training. It’s only in hindsight that I look back and think I’m really glad I did, because the CA qualification is really good to have in your back pocket. It shows what you’re capable of.
How would you summarise your career from there?
I trained in London with KPMG and then wanted to go and work abroad, so I got a job with PwC in Sydney. I went out to Australia thinking that I’d only be there for two years and ended up staying for about 15, met my husband, had a couple of kids.
After a couple of years, I decided I wanted to change out of the Big Four, so I moved across to Macquarie, to investment banking. I absolutely loved that job. I was there for about seven to eight years and then became self-employed after the birth of my second child, and I’ve been self-employed ever since.
…that’s why I left a job that I loved, because I needed to put myself in a position of power of where and when I worked.
Did your career support your decision to start a family or did your career have to adjust to that decision?
When I was getting ready to come back from maternity leave after my second daughter, I had a very clear idea of the kind of mum I wanted to be. I wanted to be the hands-on school mum, doing all the drop-offs and pick-ups and that just didn’t mesh with the investment banking world. It’s very long hours, lots of overseas travel, which is fantastic, but only when you’re single. So, I realised that I was going to have to make a choice, and that’s why I left a job that I loved, because I needed to put myself in a position of power of where and when I worked.
Do you think firms could do more to support women considering career breaks?
I was in that position about 10 years ago, so I don’t know what it would be like now for someone who wanted to take a break. Back then I’d leave at four because I’d have to go and do the school pick up and had people looking at their watches when I got up to leave, which I just accepted. I don’t know if that’s better accepted now, but I do know that it helps if companies can allow parents to share the maternity or paternity leave. That helps give a family a bit more flexibility.
With the pandemic there’s been this seismic shift and everybody has just re-evaluated everything.
Do you think there’s an issue with the way we talk about career breaks, that perhaps we could begin to reframe them in a more positive way?
I wonder if that’s already changed? With the pandemic there’s been this seismic shift and everybody has just re-evaluated everything asking, ‘what do I actually want to be doing with my time?’ There’s a lot of people who have now had a lot more time with their families and they don’t want to give that up and go back to what they were doing. There’s been the great resignation, a lot people leaving even when they have nothing else lined up because they can’t stomach doing their jobs anymore. I think that people making decisions that allow them to prioritise time with their family and kids, including career breaks, will be seen in a different light now.
Do you see a correlation between that pandemic shift in attitudes to work-life balance and the shift in attitudes towards mental health?
The pandemic has refocused everything and changed expectations in all regards. Companies are really starting to understand that there’s a direct correlation between a happy workforce and a healthy bottom line. There’s a tangible financial impact if your workforce is engaged and feels valued, so I think there’s an acceptance of the need to engage.
The general dialogue and narrative around these topics has drastically changed in the last couple of years. There’s a lot more compassion in the workplace, which is a good thing to see, and there’s been a lot more vulnerability. People are feeling more that they can speak up because everyone’s been struggling.
Having someone at board level saying they are championing wellbeing and are here to lead the way is crucial.
With this shift in perceptions and expectations within the workforce, how best can firms proceed?
What I’ve seen from clients I’ve talked to is it has to be led from the top down. Otherwise, it feels like a tick-box exercise from an employee point of view. Having someone at board level saying they are championing wellbeing and are here to lead the way is crucial in terms of delivering those messages and getting everybody on board, because you’re always going to have people in an organisation who feel that it’s something that should just sit with HR. Trying to break that down and saying it’s not a pocket that sits within an organisation, it’s pervasive and everyone needs to be on board, if that message can come from the top, it will cascade all the way down.
Sticking with the topic of wellbeing, what prompted you to create the ThinkWellbeing consultancy?
Wellbeing sort of found me, really. When I moved back to the UK from Australia about three years ago, I had a call from one of my clients saying, ‘I’ve been told that I’ve got to look at wellbeing. How do I do that? What framework do I use? How do I assess whether we’re doing it well?’ We had this long conversation, and I was thinking, if a company of that size doesn’t know how to tackle this, then it’s a real problem.
Around the same time – it’s kind of a perfect storm – a good friend of mine who’s a senior Big Four partner called me up and said, ‘I’m telling my teams to make sure they get enough sleep and go for a walk after lunch, but I need to be able to tell them more and I don’t know how to help them’. I was going through mental-health first-aider training at the time and so it all it created a very obvious situation: people want to be doing the best thing for their teams but they don’t know how. And whilst I wasn’t necessarily the expert in all areas, I had come across a lot of companies and individuals who worked in that space and could offer really tangible solutions. Through ThinkWellbeing I can now provide clients with those tailored solutions and work with them to drive real change within their workforces.
How do you think the pandemic affected women’s wellbeing in particular?
I don’t want to make any sweeping statements but in the circles I move in it tended to be the women who bore the brunt of the home schooling, whilst also keeping the house and family and work ticking along. And that was universally tough, because we’re not teachers but we were trying to fulfil that role whilst also dealing with internet crashes and laptops not working and all that kind of good stuff.
Typically, as women, you tend to absorb the emotional fallout from your kids a bit more, and it was very emotionally draining because as a parent you want to provide security and structure but then they’re saying, ‘when can we go back to school?’ I don’t know. ‘When will the pandemic be over?’ I don’t know. ‘When can I play with my friends?’ I don’t know. You can’t meet those basic needs of your kids and that’s really tough.
We need to empower women to have more confidence in having a voice and stepping up.
ICAS is marking International Woman’s Day which has a theme for 2022 of, break the bias. Have you faced gender bias during your career?
Funnily enough, even going through investment banking, I don’t think I have ever personally experienced it, which sounds bizarre, but I’m very fortunate. I’ve never been under the impression that I’ve been held back or had any bias against me because of my gender, but I am very aware that a lot of people feel that it does happen to them.
What do you think the profession could collectively do better to help remove gender bias that does exist?
Removing the barriers to allow more diversity at board level and senior roles, so people can say, ‘oh, there’s someone who has had a career break twice and moved countries and changed careers, but she is still successful and because of her experiences she can bring a lot more to the board’.
But one of the things that really stands out for me is the flip side of that, which is how women see themselves. Statistically we know that impostor syndrome affects women a lot more than men and that’s something that needs to be worked on in terms of training and having women recognising it and learning how to deal with it. Because even if you do remove barriers to an equal workforce, if women inherently don’t believe they can get up into these roles or sit on a board, then it’s irrelevant. We need to empower women to have more confidence in having a voice and stepping up.
You volunteer as a mentor for female students at Exeter University. What’s that experience been like?
It’s hugely rewarding. One of the reasons I wanted to sign up was, when my daughters go out into the workplace it will be completely different to when I went out into the workplace in 2001. I thought, I need to be able to help them the best I can by staying in touch with what it’s like. So, if I can be a mentor to people who are going through that process now, I’m going to have a better understanding of what they’re going to face.
But mentoring also causes you to reflect, which is helpful because it means that you’re reassessing for yourself, what’s important to me and how have I grown and changed, and what do I want? And what you find when you’re giving advice is you’re asking yourself, ‘am I taking notice of that myself? I’m telling you to do this, but am I still holding true to those values and those beliefs?’ That kind of constant assessment and reappraisal is healthy, just to keep you progressing.
…through experience, I know that bad times pass, and that when things feel like the end of the world they never are.
Do you see yourself as a role-model to your mentees?
I’m really not comfortable with the role-model label, but I think the one thing above all else that I can offer my mentees is perspective, because I have bucket-loads of that. I’m at an age where, through experience, I know that bad times pass, and that when things feel like the end of the world they never are. I think that’s where someone older can help, just to balance things out a little bit.
Do you feel think there’s an added pressure on women in the profession to act as role models?
I do think there’s an element of judgement that probably doesn’t happen to men, like, ‘how is she juggling motherhood and career? Is she managing to nail both? When is she also making sure that she exercises and takes care of herself, is she ticking all the boxes?’ That’s just a whole load of pressure that’s not helpful and I don’t think my husband would ever be asked those questions.
Being a role model is quite tough. I just tell my daughters, I don’t care what you do when you grow up, find something you’re passionate about and do it with integrity and just swim in your own lane. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, everyone is on their own journey, just find what you want to do and commit to it. I think we should try and change the focus so it’s not around who are your role models but who had a particular trait that you’d like to emulate, male or female.
Did you have any role models in your early career?
Unfortunately, in my early career I saw a lot of examples of what I didn’t want. This is 20 years ago, but there were quite a lot of unhealthy examples, of women in senior positions who had to choose career or family and I didn’t want that for me. But I do highly regard it when I see women in senior positions who are also being very philanthropic, talking about how we can give back to our local communities and what we want to be remembered for, and it’s not just the bottom line anymore, it’s what do we stand for? What do we represent? How do people feel when they work with us? Anyone who’s out there with that kind of message is an example of great leadership.
For more information about mental wellbeing, visit the Wellbeing Matters section of the ICAS website.