Valuable lessons in corporate confidence
‘Boys, clean up after yourselves. Your mothers don’t work here.” Sally Hutton says she knew her son was a feminist in the making when he took a picture of this notice in his school’s library and sent it to her in outrage.
As managing partner at Webber Wentzel, one of South Africa’s biggest law firms, Hutton seems the polar opposite of the traditional gender stereotype of a mother focused only on raising children.
Corporate law has historically been dominated by men and, while she has never experienced direct discrimination in her career, Hutton believes gender stereotyping and the effects of socialisation still have a huge effect on the confidence levels of women.
A notice in a school library may seem harmless, but this kind of message contributes not only to the way boys perceive girls, but to how boys perceive their mothers and, more importantly, to how girls perceive themselves.
“It is not necessarily formal barriers that hold women back. A lot of it boils down to confidence and the belief that you can do it,” she says.
Hutton took up the managing-partner position in March last year after the firm’s then senior partner stepped down because of ill health.
He was 56 and she was 44, and Hutton says when she was asked to stand for the managing-partner position, her first thought was that she wasn’t ready yet.
“Many women seem to only want to take on a challenge when they feel that they are 100% ready and able to do it perfectly. In my experience, this is a uniquely female issue. We have been socialised not to take risks – but career development requires leaps of faith.”
Hutton says she was slightly uncomfortable at first with the amount of media attention she received as the first woman to be appointed to a senior leadership position at one of South Africa’s Big Five law firms. Her appointment was a gruelling process involving psychometric testing, appointment panel interviews, manifestos, partner presentations and an election.
“The media attention suggested that it was a surprising development, but for me it felt like a natural, albeit daunting, progression. I felt I had worked hard and that perhaps the focus on the fact that I was a woman detracted somewhat from this.” She soon realised, though, that she had underestimated the symbolism of her new position as well as the important contribution she could make as a role model.
“Almost immediately after my appointment, I started receiving correspondence from young women – both inside and outside our firm – expressing what it meant to them to have me in this position. It struck me then that for women in senior positions within the legal profession, it is our responsibility to be role models, to be more visible and to be more vocal.”
She says women in leadership positions can also help to dispel stereotypes – especially for young women and girls who want corporate careers after they have children.
“When I was at school and university, there was always a subtext that it would all end when we had children.” Then she fell pregnant unexpectedly as a first-year associate.
“In those days, managing a professional career with motherhood was still fairly uncommon and there were a lot of people who said: ‘Oh it’s such a terrible shame. She had such a bright future ahead of her.’”
Hutton worked part time for about seven years and watched a number of her male peers surge ahead of her. But she continued her career and had her second child while she was a junior partner, and her third when she was an equity partner. “Careers don’t always have to progress in a linear fashion or at a consistent pace … mine certainly didn’t. “There will always be some plateaus or holding periods and other periods of fast acceleration. Timing is never right or perfect,” she says. In her current role, she tries to create an environment that provides women with enough flexibility to ensure they do not feel forced to leave their jobs so they can manage the extra responsibilities that come with having children.