Hilary Devey: There’s no such thing as the glass ceiling for women in business

The Dragons' Den star talks sacrifice, success and sexism in the workplace ahead of her show Women at the Top


There are lots of myths about why women are under-represented in the boardroom, but the excuse about a ‘glass ceiling’ existing to prevent women from getting to the top is the worst. I am living proof that there’s no such thing. If it did exist, how could I have got to where I am today? Can you think of a more misogynistic world than the one I work in, as owner of my pallet freight business, Pall-Ex? I can’t.


I met with women who, on the whole, worked for big PLCs with lots of shareholders and big pots of money. But I couldn’t cope, as they sometimes have had to, with a significant number of staff wanting to take maternity leave at the same time.

My management team is 40 per cent women, yet women take up only 15 per cent of positions at board level across the country. This isn’t because I’ve been forced to employ women. Quotas don’t work.

I talk to my female employees empathetically and ask them for their plans and aspirations. I know that if they are 30 and get married they will want a baby, and I ask them to give me notice so I can plan for that. I make them feel they will still have a career with me beyond maternity leave. After all, just because you have had a child, doesn’t mean that your brain has been dissected.

The women I met who didn’t want to return to work were often worried about the cost of childcare. Women shouldn’t be penalised for wanting to work – or for wanting to stay at home. The government should offer free pre-school childcare so that women can work. That will prove far cheaper than what they lose out on in taxes.

I am always asked whether women can have it all . The question should be whether people can have it all. There are plenty of men out there at board level who are never asked whether they take their children to school and do bedtime stories. Do they “have it all”?

When I began my journey for Women at the Top, I thought the idea of women struggling to reach the uppermost rung of the career ladder was a load of rubbish. I believed that gender wasn’t a real impediment to career progression, and that success would come to those who truly sought it. But I surprised myself while making the show. I still think that women who want to succeed will, but I had not previously appreciated the scale and variety of sacrifices that they have to make in order to keep up with male counterparts

Getting to where I am today has demanded many personal sacrifices. Twenty-six years ago, when I had my son, my employer at the time took away my company car before we were even out of the hospital. No one would get away with that today. However, women still have to sacrifice more than their male counterparts. This is not necessarily right, but it is a fact of the world in which we live.

Women still have to sacrifice more than their male counterparts The sooner that we stop complaining about our biological differences and get down to work, the sooner more women will rise to the top of their fields.

The fact is that we are physically the weaker sex, but mentally we are of course as strong as men. The sooner we grasp that, the easier it will be for women at the top.

The old boys network still exists in the City because there will always be men who think that women should be in the kitchen and the bedroom, and not in the boardroom. There will always be sexism. Prove the small-minded doubters wrong!

I will always have time for women with aspirations and ambition, but not for those who use men as an excuse for their own failings.


Hilary Devey: Women at the Top is on tonight at 9.00pm on BBC2