Banner Default Image

International Women’s Day: An Interview with Executive Search Director Rachel Wheeler

Back to Blogs
Blog Img

International Women’s Day: An Interview with Executive Search Director Rachel Wheeler

It’s clear that women are choosing the fast-growing digital industry to elevate their career success. New figures from Forward Role show that in 2022, 55% of junior roles in Digital and Tech were filled by women. Additionally, 40% of senior and C-suite roles were filled by female candidates, matching the target set by the FTSE Women Leaders review

Rachel Wheeler, Forward Role's Executive Search Director, feels the new data is cause for optimism. “For me, the data suggests that businesses are becoming more diverse and that woman are actively seeking opportunities in an industry previously deemed to be male-dominated. 

“I personally believe the paradigm shift to hybrid working in the last few years has been great for women and their careers. Today, women are able to more easily pursue promotion opportunities as the infrastructure to balance home and work life is far stronger. Historically, those tensions between home and work have been more pronounced for women than they have for men. Hopefully, we’re seeing that begin to change.”

However, there’s still more to be done to address the gender gap in the UK. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that the pay gap has slightly increased over the last two years, despite the long-term trend of it shrinking.

As we get set to mark International Women's Day2023 (Wednesday, 8 March), we've spoken with Rachel about her own experiences as a female director at a prolific specialist recruitment firm. We discuss how she’s been representing more and more female candidates in senior roles, her personal achievements in her career, and what businesses can do to champion gender equality. 

  1. How did you get into recruitment?

Like many of us in the wonderful world of recruitment, it wasn’t the path I thought I would follow when I graduated with First Class Honours in Law. I wanted to be a solicitor, so I initially pursued a legal career as a Paralegal for two top law firms in Manchester and spent all my free time tirelessly applying for training contracts. 

After an arduous interview with a national firm, I thought I was in for a great shot, only to be rejected on the basis that I showed little commercial acumen (the irony is that I’m now on a trajectory to become the Commercial Director here at Forward Role). With little money and fed up with waiting for others to ‘give me a chance’, I turned my back on law, entered sales, and then fell into the world of recruitment. 

And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world. I absolutely love my job.

  1. How does the new data about female candidates compare with your personal experience of the Digital and Tech industry right now?

I think it’s reflective of the progress I’m seeing being made, at least with the businesses with whom I work. The industry is changing as we see more initiatives and accessible collateral to encourage women to enter the world of digital and tech.  We also witness pioneering women within the space such as Whitney Wolfe Herd founder of Bumble, Reshma Saujani founder of Girls who Code and Susan Wojcicki CEO of Youtube,  making it a much more enticing and interesting industry in which to pursue careers.

Personally, I find myself representing more and more female candidates for senior roles than I have in the past. Several years ago I remember (shamefully) being asked by a Board why there were no women in my shortlist of candidates for a Digital Director role I was recruiting, but I genuinely could not find a female profile that matched the brief. Now, I am proud to say that my shortlists are far more diverse: I have personally placed more women than men into senior roles over the last two years.

  1. What has been the most career-defining moment that you are proud of? 

Coming back from maternity leave in September 2020 is the highlight of my career. I was so nervous and also had to battle the challenges of Covid. Despite my initial lack of self-belief, I threw myself into my role and kept reminding myself that nothing is as hard as being a parent! I worked hard and long hours to re-establish myself and ensure I quickly became the ‘go-to’ person in my market. 

Within seven months, I was promoted to Senior Manager, and within 14 months, I was promoted to Director, levels I thought would be unattainable for several years. I look back fondly at my sheer determination and tenacity — and the box sets I binged whilst completing admin into the early hours!

  1. What is the most significant deterrent to women succeeding in the workplace?

I truly believe the biggest deterrent to women succeeding in the workplace is the common misconception that it’s ‘impossible’ to pursue a career and start a family. Yes, finding a balance is hard — there will be sacrifices and days when you’re riddled with guilt — but with the right support, anything is possible. 

The only way for us to quash this fallacy is to encourage more and more women to climb the ladder. Once seen, fellow women will look to attain similar goals. We should aim to inspire the next generation to a point where we are no longer talking about senior women in the workplace but just senior people, regardless of gender.

I’m quite fortunate that I’ve not experienced many challenges as a woman in senior management. I’m well respected internally by colleagues and externally by clients and candidates, and I certainly wouldn’t hold back on calling out any untoward behaviour. 

Don’t get me wrong: in my very first meeting with my fellow Directors following my promotion, I was riddled with imposter syndrome, and it took me a few weeks to find my voice (they’ll no doubt disagree!) This is normal for women and men, so we need to stop piling the pressure on ourselves and ensure we don’t avoid situations. We just need to throw ourselves in the deep end.

  1. Who has been your biggest advocate/mentor in the workplace, and why?

Brian, our MD, is, without a doubt, my biggest mentor and advocate here at Forward Role. He has listened to me and enabled me to drive change, such as our market leader maternity policy. 

He has really helped me grow professionally and personally and ensures I strike a balance. He often encourages me to prioritise myself, my family and my daughter.

I have succeeded at Forward Role because of the flexibility I've been given to work and prioritise my role as a mum. I do the nursery run daily, attend events like nativity plays, forest days, and stay and play, yet my work output never falters. In fact, I truly believe it improves. 

My progression to Director is down to my results, attitude, values, and behaviours, not simply my gender. Forward Role is an equal opportunities employer and gives everyone the opportunity to thrive.

  1. What are some of the best workplace initiatives do you know of that help promote gender equality?

A few businesses within my network (Expedia, Ipsos) encourage shared parental leave by offering the mother’s partner up to three months of full-pay parental leave. I think this is an awesome initiative to encourage gender equality in the workplace and allows the parent time to bond with their baby whilst supporting the mother to return to work. 

I’ve also recently become aware of the Workplace Nursery Benefit, which can help employees save on childcare costs (in addition to government support). It’s a brilliant initiative and one I actively encourage everyone to research and adopt. 

Ultimately, it’s important that businesses do not just post marketing collateral on International Women’s Day yet return to their imbalanced views the following day. Equality exists 365 days a year. It is incredibly important to have a diverse workforce at all levels to ensure different perspectives are on-boarded and to continually encourage different genders in the workplace.

  1. What advice would you give to women who feel they’re being treated differently or not being given the same opportunities as men at work or in job interviews?

Women should definitely voice their concerns to management, HR or peers if they feel they are being treated differently or are not given the same opportunities in the workplace or in job interviews. 

If this isn’t possible for whatever reason, I would encourage women to share their experiences on Glassdoor, a confidential, professional platform where people can provide both positive and negative feedback on the companies they work for. Employers will see this and they will hopefully take action to rectify the situation. Additionally, women can consult services such as ACAS, which provides impartial advice on a person’s legal standing and can provide representation in matters of discrimination.

The most important thing is to ensure women are not silent when treated unfairly. By voicing concerns, we can all play our part to eliminate bias and encourage change..

  1. What advice would you give to women who are considering going into Digital and Tech but who may be put off by the perception that they’re male-dominated industries?

I would encourage women to look around them for inspiration by reading and listening to material by influential women in the space and speaking to senior females for advice. If you have an interest in digital and/or technology, pursue your passion! Perceptions can be misleading and they can certainly be changed.

Once upon a time, the vast majority of industries were male-dominated as women were unable to pursue careers due to legal and societal constraints, but it only took a handful of pioneers to change perceptions. We all have the power to challenge the ‘norm’ and carve a path to inspire future generations of women.

Read through our list of interviews in our International Women’s Day blog series. Or, get in touch with us here at Forward Role, where we can help you through the next stage of your career.