The CIPD celebrates successful female careers on International Women’s Day

Sally Austin, Chief HR Officer at Wincanton, explains how ‘leaving loudly’ and avoiding imposter syndrome have helped her ensure that having a successful career and being a mum are not-mutually exclusive.

Sally Austin

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting role models for others to aspire to. In that spirit, we asked Sally Austin, Chief HR Officer at Wincanton, to share her career story and reflections on what it’s like to be a full-time working mum in a male-dominated industry.

What’s your current role?

I’m the Chief HR Officer at Wincanton plc. It’s Britain’s largest logistics firm and we employ around 17,700 people across more than 200 sites. I split my time between our head office in Chippenham and my home office in Maidenhead. I joined in August 2019, so just coming up to six months in post. 

How would you describe your career journey to date? 

My career started with a degree in psychology. BAE Systems sponsored me through my final year at university and, when I graduated, offered me a place on their three-year graduate training scheme.

I had my first experience of operational HR at Coopervision, the contact lens manufacturer, and then moved to Eaton Corporation, the power management company, where I held several HR management roles across EMEA.

In 2005, I joined Costain, provider of smart infrastructure solutions, as an HR manager. I then progressed through the organisation to being appointed as Group HR Director on the Executive Board in 2014.  After five years in the seat, I was approached to join the Executive Team at Wincanton.

What attracted you to a career in HR?

I’ve always had an interest in human behaviour, so HR was one of a number of obvious routes to take. My first experience at BAE Systems opened my eyes to all aspects of the people profession, and I could really see what value great HR teams could bring to business.

Has being a woman ever impeded your career opportunities?

No, far from it. I always knew that I wanted to have a career and be a mum – the two things don’t need to be mutually exclusive! I knew it would be hard, but I put my mind to it and created ways to make it happen. Whenever I’ve been offered an opportunity, I’ve said yes before letting imposter syndrome kick in.

What obstacles have you and women around you had to overcome?

I think the biggest obstacle is the one of juggling motherhood and a career but I was determined to not let it stop me, so I worked with my employer to find a framework and routine that worked for everyone. 

I speak to many other women who face similar challenges, but I often find that having a good support network (such as gender networks, senior sponsors, family, etc), the perceived obstacles are usually solvable. I’m not saying it’s for everyone as there are undoubtedly sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way (such as missing the school pick-up…), but I always find a way to make the all-important assemblies and Christmas nativities.  I talk openly about this with my children and their response has always been that they are proud to see both mum and dad working (and let’s face it, enabling them to have the latest gadget…! 😊)  

What advice would you offer to other women ‘juggling’ motherhood and a career? 

At work, I’ve always had great sponsors and mentors who’ve supported me in my decisions. At home, whilst my husband and I both work full time, we’ve worked hard to create a routine that works for the whole family, including the school run!

Some of the practical things I did were to only hold meetings between 10.00 and 16.00, so I never put my pressure on myself to leave meetings early to pick up children. I would also make a point of ‘leaving loudly’ so my team and others could see that I wasn’t trying to hide my other commitments and I would also tell my team and fellow executives that between the hours of 17:30 and 19:30 I would be doing ‘the wheels on the bus,’ so they were unlikely to reach me. I would of course be flexible at other times so work always got done.

As a senior leader I see my responsibility in being a visible role model to other aspiring women – I have to practice what I preach!

What’s it like to work in such male-dominate organisations as Wincanton and Costain? 

Great! I suppose I’ve not known any different so it’s hard to compare to other industries, but I’ve always been respected and rewarded for my contribution and outputs, regardless of my gender. I’ve always championed the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda and I find I regularly get asked for a female perspective. I encourage this as it shows how people are trying to think differently and recognise that diversity matters in industry, particularly when 80% of the workforce is ‘pale and male.’

What are you doing in your current role to promote gender equality? 

My mission is to become a broken record on important EDI issues! In all seriousness, the Wincanton story is just beginning but at Costain, the team and I did vast amounts to move perceptions on EDI. 

I made a conscious decision to be an active role model, talking about my story and views as much as possible, breaking down perceptions and personally mentoring a number of women in their early careers. Setting a clear strategy was vital – it helped us get true buy-in from the top and meant everyone knew exactly what good looked like.

With such a male dominated workforce, we worked hard on the role of the male ally and the included majority – enabling every employee to understand how they could play their part in creating a more inclusive culture. At the time of leaving Costain, we had just been placed in the Times Top 50 Employers for Women for the second year running… something we could only dream of a few years previously. If you set your mind to it and with the right team, it’s amazing what you can achieve. 

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