Ever since she made her debut on Dragon's Den in 2011, I've had a massive soft spot for Hilary Devey. Her recent appearance on Channel 4's Hotel GB only endeared her to me further. And it's not just her gravelly voice, drag queen shoulder pads and overall camp appeal. It's her school-of-hard-knocks life story, and what it represents: that you can get a long way in life through sheer balls and bootstrapping.
But I'm not going to dwell on Devey's personal history. After all, adversity is something you face in life and in business no matter who you are, and I've always thought that to describe someone as having done well "considering their circumstances" only serves to diminish what they have achieved. Who cares if Devey's been through the mill? Who cares that she's a woman? Her accomplishments ought to speak for themselves.
The same goes for Karren Brady, who appears on the BBC's other flagship business reality show, The Apprentice, and whose career trajectory would put that of many of her male peers to shame. Does being a member of the fairer sex make a difference to the fact that she was Managing Director of Birmingham City F.C. at the age of 23, or that she is now Vice-Chair of West Ham, or that she has had four books published?
The answer, one would hope, is no. And while Brady's success in a predominantly male environment may be seen as cause for celebration, it is also indicative of how sorely the world of work needs to evolve. Certain questions are still asked of female leaders that would never be posed to their male counterparts, and some companies feel perfectly justified in deeming female candidates unsuitable for high-powered positions because they have a baby or are planning to start a family in the near future. I have never heard a single account of this prejudice being leveraged against a man (and would be very interested to hear about it if anyone does know of such a case).
I asked Twitter, that great barometer of public opinion, for any and all suggestions of positive female business role models. Rose-Anna Bailey, a student from Ironbridge, nominated the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop and long-time Greenpeace campaigner. When asked why she admired Roddick, Rose-Anna answered: "She understood the importance of timing and didn't make short-term decisions for short-term profit."
At the other end of the spectrum, film producer Jules T-Smith from London chose Spice Girl and original WAG Victoria Beckham, justifying his selection with some creative algebra: "Cheesy girl band - ego + footballer + solo career - top ten hit / bad third album x fashion line x pout (squared) = success." He raises an interesting point about show-business and the creative industries, where at first glance female success has a much healthier ratio -- but that probably necessitates a discussion on the extent to which stars like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry really manage their own careers.
I can't say for certain why, but whenever I try to think of a business role model, I come up with a woman. Perhaps I'm prejudiced in favour of female entrepreneurs. Growing up, I learned the value of hard work from watching my mother run a small business. Thirteen years on, that business is still going and she is in the process of starting another.
Additionally, as a freelancer I am in constant contact with incredibly driven, dynamic and creative women. One prime example is author, entrepreneur and crusader Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn. Gallop stated in a piece at Adage.com last year that women in business need to be bigger "bitches" -- not simply to be antagonistic, but rather to ensure their voice is heard.
When I interviewed Gallop for The Kernel, we got chatting about the battle of the sexes, or more specifically the myth surrounding it. Gallop's stance: "I am a firm believer that if we have a more gender-equal world where everything is built equally between men and women, men will enjoy living in it. Every different business is a product of a different kind of vision. Innovation is driven by diversity. The misconception is that women only create for women, and vice versa."
At the end of the day, it seems, everything comes down to confidence and self-belief. And while women who speak their minds may be seen as "bitches," Gallop believes it is a risk worth taking in the long run. Speaking to Business Insider, Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg stated: "It's hard to visualize someone as a leader, if she is always waiting to be told what to do."
Or, as Tina Fey more succinctly put it: "Bitches get stuff done."