The Power of Vision and Generosity: Remembering Dame Shirley Conran

May 15

2024

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Helen Whitten

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The Power of Vision and Generosity: Remembering Dame Shirley Conran

I owe a lot to the late Dame Shirley Conran, who died on 9 May 2024.  She and her peers were the forerunners of the feminist movement.  We may forget that women did not have easy access to finance or equality until after the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Shirley and her generation wouldn’t take no for an answer and she came to realize that education, communication and the ability to add up and be able to make your own money were the essential ingredients for an empowered life, whether male or female.  She not only wanted that for herself but set out in her own inimitable fashion to make it happen for other girls and women.

This she did through her books – the sexual liberation suggested in her blockbuster novel Lace and her more practical suggestions in Superwoman.  She also pursued the interests of women through her philanthropic projects and this is where I first met her, in the 1990s. I had just set up my coaching and training business, Positiveworks, which was focusing on how to provide individuals with the personal and professional skills to make their work and home lives easier.  I had a specific interest in work-life balance and attended the Mothers in Management conference at the Savoy which Shirley had arranged.  I was hesitant to introduce myself to her as she presided over the conference in her wonderful white trouser suit but, as has been the experience of many other women involved in her various projects, she saw in me things of which I had not previously thought myself capable.  This was quite a talent of hers as it provided her at the same time with individuals (not all women) who had the skills and know-how that she did not specifically have herself but from which she felt her current project could benefit.

And so shortly afterwards she suggested I become Deputy-Chair of the Work-Life Balance Trust, which is what Mothers in Management transformed into, and that I run sessions at conferences and also create a CD-Rom, through the sponsorship of BT, on the topic of Help Yourself to a Better Life. This was a seven-step self-development programme to enable individuals to consider, analyse and create a life that reflected their priorities and helped them feel in control of their time.

More recently Shirley turned her attention to the subject of learning and specifically of maths and its importance in everyone’s lives.  She set up the Maths Anxiety Trust with a variety of experts in the field of mathematics and of education, and worked alongside Caroline Shott at Learnus and the Learning Skills Research Foundation.  She tested some of her theories out at Langley Park Girls’ School with my colleague Diane Carrington and later created panels and interventions to help people, but girls and women in particular, to develop confidence and capability in maths. Through this Diane and I created another CD-Rom, Launching Yourself, which led us to write our book Future Directions, Practical Ways to develop Confidence and Emotional Intelligence in Young People.

There was a legacy of women releasing the responsibility for finance to their husbands.  This wasn’t always the case as in certain families the man would pass the money over to his wife but there were many other cases where women assumed that their husband was in control, knew what he was doing and they took no interest, only sometimes to discover, should he die, that the family were deeply in debt.

Shirley realized how important it is for girls to feel at ease with numbers, to understand interest rates, to seek to save and invest money, to consider their pensions and to feel in control of their lives as individuals.  As a business coach I shared with her my experiences of coaching women managers and how often they shied away from asking for a raise where their male colleagues felt no such reticence.  We studied the reasons and the potential difference in values and interests and discovered there were massive discrepancies in financial security for women, especially when it came to pensions.  Shirley had lived this experience herself and wanted to pass on her tips to others. The Maths Anxiety Trust provides support in this and many other ways.

It takes courage to make things happen.  You can’t be a shrinking violet and Shirley was not.  She had exacting standards and huge ambitions. She drew people to her through this commitment and also because she was generous. She gave philanthropic donations to her old school, St Paul’s Girls’ School, and to many other institutions.  She also was gracious in giving credit where credit was due.

She was an extraordinary woman and I don’t suppose younger women can fully appreciate how much she and her generation of feisty women did to change the shape of women’s experience in the world.  We should all be grateful to her, to them, for this, and make sure we hold onto those rights for our grandchildren’s sake, and in her memory.

She changed my life in her own way, giving me confidence, giving me opportunities with my business that I might not have had without her.  I am not alone.  I know I speak for many of us who knew her and received her generosity of spirit.

Some women have the reputation of pulling the ladder up after them when they achieve success.  Shirley was not that woman. May we adopt her example.

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7 Responses

  1. A beautiful snapshot of Shirley
    Conran’s working life Helen, and the impact on your own work and that of many other women. I have not read Lace, am buying it now!

  2. I can see Helen that from your perspective Shirley Conran’s work was very relevant. I would only wish to point out that her activities were completely peripheral to the live of Rosemary and myself and indeed some of the social and financial changes wrought at the time were just as likely to be deleterious as to be positive

  3. A very interesting post Helen. Just one point on the oft quoted statement that women could not have their own bank a/c till 1975. I think this is a myth. No doubt some banks may have been difficult and the 1975 Act would have been helpful but my mother had her own bank a/c in the 1950s as I well remember and almost certainly long before that. Likewise my grandmother. When I started university in 1969 the girls were encouraged to open their own bank accounts just like the boys – and did so.
    From one website: “In the early 20th century, the growth in female employment led to increased numbers of women becoming financially active. In the same period, banks became more seriously interested in attracting customers with smaller savings and incomes, including – for the first time – many women.”
    Of course the thrust of your article remains valid.

    1. Hi Robin yes my mother and grandmother had bank accounts too and I should probably have put the caveat that they had to have a father or husband introduce them to the bank before they could do so, or that is my understanding. I certainly remember my Dad coming into the Midland Bank with me when I was 16 and from what I have read I believe this was part of the system at the time. Hx

  4. I think in the past anyone male or female who wanted a bank account had to be introduced to the bank. My experience as a teenager was the same as yours. Banks wanted to know who they were dealing with. Incidentally Jane Austen and her sister and their mother all had their own accounts.

    1. Yes, gone are the days of personal relationships with bank managers. Obviously the information on Wiki was incorrect – have amended! Nonetheless our status as women was unequal – I can fully remember cold calls only wanting to talk to “Mr Whitten” in the 1970s and even in the 2000s callers being surprised that the Managing Director of Positiveworks was a woman! So I still feel gratitude for Shirley C and her peers for forging the way.

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