Listening to her mother’s experience of a successful career being cut short to raise a family made Christine Tacon determined she would not be forced to make the same sacrifices, as she tells Olivia Midgley.
THROUGHOUT her 40 years in business Christine Tacon has enjoyed senior roles at some of the world’s biggest companies, including Mars, Vodafone and Anchor/Fonterra.
She is also renowned for spearheading the transformation of Co-operative Farms, taking the business from a £6m loss, to a £6m profit. The business was later sold to the Wellcome Trust for £249 million in 2014.
Now, alongside her role as Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA), effectively a Government appointed supermarket watchdog with the power to investigate and fine retailers who do not adhere to strict guidelines, she helps other women negotiate the world of business, specifically in food and agriculture.
Drawing on her family’s own experience has been a key driver.
“My grandmother was a milliner and my mother was expected to do something similar when she left school. But her dream, probably driven by the shortage of food in the post-World War 2 years, was to work in agriculture,” says Christine.
“She applied to go to agricultural college but there were no places for women as the men were all coming back from serving in the forces and had priority. Told to go off and work for two years she joined the land army before taking her agricultural degree and more practical training.
“Fully trained she joined the National Advisory Service for the Ministry of Food and Farming, advising dairy farmers on how to increase milk yields. She was a brave woman working in a man’s world, often on her own but she was confident and farmers soon listened to her when they realised she knew what she was talking about.”
But that work soon came to an end when she married Christine’s father at the age of 29.
“She had to give up her job because the civil service expected women to resign on marriage. Unbelievably, that rule existed in the Foreign Office until 1973,” adds Christine, who is supporting AgriBriefing’s Women in Food and Agriculture summit later this year.
“All that ambition and training given up to be a mother of three. I don’t think she ever really got over having her career cut short.”
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“Listening to her made me determined that I was not going to choose between work and family. And certainly I was not going to have someone else make that decision for me.”
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Christine excelled in science at school but chose the unusual route of engineering. At Cambridge University, women made up less than 10 per of those on her course, which she admits she found daunting.
Her ‘saviour’, she says, came in the form of the Finniston report, which addressed concerns engineering was of relatively low status in the UK but more importantly, recognised there were not enough engineers rising to managerial levels in business.
Christine then went on to study the newly created Production Engineering Tripos which included design for production, industrial relations, finance, and material science.
She adds: “When I left university, the diversity message had started to resonate. I was lucky that many global multi-national businesses were ready to hire their first woman engineer and I got nine job offers.”
But despite having a solid degree, Christine veered towards businesses that ‘felt more female’. She joined Coats Viyella, manufacturers of fashion brands such as Jaeger and Country Casuals.
“I didn’t expect to end up in Germany in a high precision zinc die casting factory which originally made zip heads but had moved onto making parts for cars, such as spark plug caps, but I had a wonderful time,” says Christine.
“Two years later I was promoted to quality manager in the UK die casting factory.” She recalls insisting her office was built on the shop floor so workers would see she was approachable.
“On one occasion I was asked if I could stop wearing jeans to work and come in a skirt. I pointed out that nylon tights would melt into my skin if I was hit by a shot of zinc at 450 deg C and that I thought I was much better off in jeans.”
Midway through a part-time MBA she joined Mars Confectionery. By that time, the third generation of the Mars family was ‘largely female’, Christine adds.
“When John and Forrest Mars looked at their business for opportunities for their children, they realised how few women there were and set all their businesses targets to get women into senior positions.
“It worked and it didn’t. Some people got promoted who didn’t deserve it, which I as a junior manager felt set the wrong example, but it got the whole process started. We worked in a large open plan office. I witnessed some of the highly competent women, who had been rightly promoted, change their behaviour to be like the men.
“We can all learn a lot from what we don’t like that happens around us as well as that which we like. I resolved that I didn’t want to change the person I was to fit in, we need women at senior levels to change the dynamic, not to become men in skirts. Coming at the job in a different way is what diversity is all about.”
While she was at Mars, the company introduced six months’ paid maternity leave. “That was unheard of elsewhere but now they had senior women, many of whom were the major wage earners in their relationships, Mars realised that maternity pay was critical to paying the mortgage.”
When Christine had her first child, she was the only female director of global firm Redland Plc.
“They had to introduce a maternity policy for me,” she adds.
“Statutory maternity pay at the time was £52.50 per week. I said I would be happy with three months full pay and that was what they introduced.
“Exactly the same thing happened when I had my second child at Anchor Foods, now Fonterra. They realised that statutory maternity pay was not enough and again I got three months’ full pay.
“Nowadays there is a more generous statutory maternity pay policy and many businesses have policies that go further than this – how things have changed in two generations, from losing your job if you married to shared paternity leave.”
Looking to the future, she thinks some businesses may need a shift in culture in order to support women – but that takes time.
Christine adds: “Many allow part time working after maternity, but how many of them still treat a part-time worker equal to their peers when it comes to pay rises and promotion?
“Many mothers come back part time and on the same pay rates, because that is the law, but often to less demanding roles than they were in before.”
And with women occupying just 4 per cent of chief executive and top leadership roles worldwide, there is still a long way to go.
“There are only six female chief executives in the FTSE 100, but there will also be very many small to medium size businesses who are way off the pace,” she adds.
“The culture needs to change. But it won’t change overnight. The law is on our side but we all have to help make baby steps of progress, nudging business forwards. We are not fighting a battle but we need to take up lots of little challenges, raising awareness and being confident to tell it how it is.”
Christine feels ‘lucky’ to have been confident in her own ability and was always happy to challenge the way things were done. Even when working in large multinational businesses, she succeeded in effecting change.
It is an attitude she has brought to her most recent role as GCA. As the Government’s regulator she has the power to investigate code breaches and fine up to 1 per cent of turnover, which would be £0.5bn for a retailer such as Tesco.
“As the first ever person in this job I could do the role the way I wanted to and I wasn’t interested in being a regulator using a big stick,” says Christine.
“My way is not going straight for my powers but starting with a measured, business-like collaborative approach. There could of course be some correlation here that women prefer non-confrontational styles. I have only done two investigations in five and a half years. But I have achieved significant change through what I deemed as a collaborative approach, working with the supermarkets I regulate and showing them how I wanted them to change rather than trying to catch them out.”
Looking back on her career, Christine admits to have been ‘gender blind’ at times and even declined invitations to join groups to promote women. However this is something she regrets.
“I wanted to be accepted for what I did, not because I was female,” she adds.
“But I now believe that was an arrogant approach. Just because I had the confidence to be myself in a man’s world doesn’t mean that everyone shares that same confidence.”
She has since established a Women in Food and Farming group which has a high proportion of members under 30. The group meets three times a year for networking and members help each other develop skills and knowledge in what is still a male-dominated industry.
Christine also chairs MDS, a not-for-profit business that recruits and trains graduates in the food – many of them young women.
Asked what advice she would give young women starting out in their careers, Christine’s says ‘be yourself’.
“Don’t try to be something else or conform to how others behave, however tempting it is if you are a lone female,” she says,
“Every job I have done I have been myself. I never considered that I had been disadvantaged throughout my career due to being female. On the contrary I think I have often been noticed for being a competent female.”