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Tuesday 8 March marks International Women’s Day – a global day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality. 

At M&S, we aim to make sure we have 30% female board members and 35% females in senior roles. We’re pleased to have made a lot of progress and today 43% of our senior roles are filled by women and 38% of our board are female. Even from our beginnings we were committed to gender diversity. The first official staff training role went to a Miss Gibbs in 1909 and her role was to train a number of female assistants to become staff manageresses.

However, there is still lots to do and the issue of gender equality remains an important global challenge. 

The Inspiring Women’s Network was launched two years ago. It’s there to help inspire, support and enable women to reach their full potential and, ultimately, to help support the ongoing pipeline of women into senior roles. We’ve had some fantastic speakers during this time, including Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Katie Piper, Karen Brady and Bonita Norris (the youngest person to summit Mount Everest and the North Pole). Over the last four months we have been evolving and refreshing the network so this International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on what we’ve achieved and what more we want to do. 

We have a week of activity planned for our colleagues including debate sessions on topics including the barriers women face when progressing into senior leadership and the role of men in the solution to gender balance. During the week we will hear from women throughout M&S sharing one thing that has helped them in their career and what they’d like to see more of. Our key event is a panel discussion - ‘What I Wish I Knew Then’ – hosted by Louise Court from Hearst Magazines and will explore the career highs and lows, opinions and suggestions of M&S leaders for improving gender balance. We’ll also use this week to re-launch the network to our members.  The M&S Company Archive in Leeds will be hosting an event for International Women’s Day exploring how female employees made their mark on M&S and shaped the future of this 130-year-old retailer.

I’m thrilled to be one of the new co-chairs of the network along with Sharon Peters. Gender equality is something that we both feel passionately about and it’s brilliant to see that our chairman, Robert Swannell, is actively engaged in the work of the Inspiring Women’s Network.

We’re proud to be working alongside a strong group of M&S women from different parts of the business to lead the network. Our next big thing is to roll out a female mentoring programme. We have a long tradition of supporting career development through mentoring relationships at M&S and we have heard from M&S women that they want more of this. We’re working to showcase the tools available and to establish a new female mentoring programme to match up even more mentors and mentees across the business. 

So this International Women’s Day we’re looking forward to getting women and men from across M&S involved and talking about gender equality through the events, and we’ll be challenging our teams to think about the small things they can do to improve gender balance. It’s great to look back and see how far we’ve come but we’re even more excited about the difference we can make in the year ahead.