High-flyer discusses women in business at Birkbeck memorial event

Dorothy Thompson CBE discussed her career and thoughts on topics that matter to women in leadership with journalist Helen Barrett.

(Left to right): Professor Philip Powell, Dorothy Thompson CBE, Helen Barrett and Lady Marshall

Birkbeck’s Department of Management hosted the 2018 Lord Marshall Memorial, where Dorothy Thompson CBE joined Helen Barrett, work and careers editor of the Financial Times, in conversation on the topic of women in leadership.

Thompson is chair designate of Tullow Oil, non-executive director of the Court of the Bank of England and Eaton Corporation, a multinational power management company listed on the New York stock exchange. She continues to enjoy a long and distinguished career, including the role of CEO of Drax Group from 2005 to 2017. One of just a handful of female chief executives to run a large UK-listed company, Thompson gives few interviews. For this reason Birkbeck was pleased to invite Helen Barrett of the FT to facilitate the conversation in memory of Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, whose widow Lady Marshall was among guests. 

Following a lengthy, successful career in aviation, Lord Marshall was Chair of Governors at Birkbeck. Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck, opened the event on Monday 9 July by saying “it is impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Colin Marshall” and he would have appreciated the evening’s theme of women in leadership.

Barrett highlighted Thompson’s contribution as one of the few senior female leaders of large British companies, to which Thompson attributed the ability to be "blind" to resistance as one of the main characteristics found in her generation of female leaders.

Drawing on experiences from her upbringing and education, Thompson noted that although she was the only woman on her degree programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the "free-thinking" nature of the university had a major influence on her career choices.

Upon graduating, and despite being told to "‘avoid interviews as she was no good at them", Thompson went on to roles at the Bank of Botswana and the Commonwealth Development Corporation in Malaysia and the UK. She embarked on a career in international development banking which eventually led to a career in the electricity generation industry.

Barrett steered the conversation to Thompson’s more recent achievements which included roles at PowerGen, InterGen and at Drax Group where she overhauled the company strategy. The differing responsibilities of a chief executive and a chair were discussed using relevant examples for the audience of current and future leaders.

Barrett questioned whether Thompson believed that senior women have a duty to be role models for women in more junior roles. She agreed and emphasised that increased visibility of senior women was a way to enable and inspire others: "If people can see that someone can get to that level, they know it’s possible and gives the opportunity."

Thompson concluded by offering two pieces of advice to young women – "do what you enjoy" and "focus on what you need to achieve and ignore the peripheral".

:: A video of the conversation will be made public shortly with further details available from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

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