“… have the courage to fight for what you know to be the truth and fair, and the wisdom to know when to walk away…”
Debbie Hough has earned her reputation in the industry through sheer hard work, intelligence and a real understanding of the mechanics of the business. Running her own company, if anyone has pioneered a change in perceptions, you need look no further.
Coinslot: International Women’s Day and we’re discussing the idea of challenging things that are holding us back. What do you think are some of the most important obstacles to the development of women in business?
Debbie Hough: I think it has never been so apparent as has been demonstrated in the last year that women really struggle to balance work and family.
Even putting the pandemic aside where women have been trying to work from home and home school, they face huge challenges if they decide to have a family.
For many women, taking time out of their career creates a glass ceiling that is often impossible to break, and those that chose to continue t o work often struggle to persuade their bosses that they are as worthy of promotion as their male counterparts who are less likely to request a day off for school plays, sports days, medical and dental appointments or to look after a sick child.
I know many fathers that play a very active role in helping to raise their kids, but the lion’s share of parenting is more often than not left to mum.
We need to continue to level the playing field in the workplace, not only so that women have a genuinely equal chance of promotion in the work place, but so that men do not feel uncomfortable asking for parental rights and are not disadvantaged when they do.
I would add that I have seen a number of ruthless women in business who callously disregard those who choose to have a family as well as a career and think it shows a sign of weakness to champion others of the same sex, instead choosing to stand by patriarchal bosses thus perpetuating the norm that most women just can’t hack it at the top.
I also understand that some women experience issues obtaining funding when trying to start their own business, with some financial institutions seeing young women as a bigger risk and less likely to succeed than their male counterparts. And yet time and again women have demonstrated their ability to come up with ingenious business ideas which have turned out to be huge business successes.
Coinslot: You have been a consultant in the industry for many years and also featured in numerous business initiatives. How has the public response to you changed in this time? Are you a woman in business or a businesswomen – an important distinction given that men are only ever considered businessmen ?
Debbie Hough: I would say I am a woman in business, currently working in an industry that is still quite male orientated; however that has always been my case.
I joined the RAF at a time when women were openly paid less than men and were forced to resign once they became pregnant irrespective of whether they were married or not.
We worked and played as hard as our male counterparts but were treated as the weaker sex, prevented from being able to carry out roles such as aircrew and available for a quick frisk by some of the more lecherous to check whet her or not we were wearing stockings.
By the time I left 10 years later we had equal pay, were flying fast jets and could stay in service as a single parent.
When I started training as a solicitor nearly 20 years ago I found that male colleagues tended to be taken more seriously, working in litigation and or doing commercial work where pay was higher.
The ladies would be found working in conveyancing or writing wills where they could be easily replaced if they needed time off.
Having already had my kids I made it clear that I wanted to go into litigation, where I learnt to look at problems from all angles to come up with the best solution and then set out the arguments with concise clarity; that has held me in good stead.
In 2007 with the introduction of the new gambling regime under the Gambling Act, I started working for existing clients most of whom were families operating arcades on the coast; while the men were the face of the business I saw that the women of the family also had a part to play in the success of the businesses.
I quickly established a client-following nationwide, but unfortunately was held back by a law firm that repeatedly let its female partners down and left when I realised that this would not change no matter how hard I worked.
Since setting up on my own I have proved my credibility to others in the industry and been able to establish a successful consultancy practice that fits with the needs of the clients rather than the other way round.
The industry response has been exceedingly positive and I like to think that I am respected in the industry having had the time and space to prove my capability without my gender being relevant.
Coinslot: Which people have influenced you most and where have you gained your inspiration?
Debbie Hough: Sadly, despite going to an all-girls school I cannot list any women that have influenced me in my business life or otherwise.
My dad has probably been my biggest inspiration but I think that is indicative of the era I grew up in.
He took it upon himself to ensure his two daughters could stand up for and look after themselves; we were taught to question everything and that nothing was impossible if we just put our mind to it.
Without a son he had by the time I was 17, taught me to change a wheel, the oil, and the oil filter, set the points and even flush the engine block on the old Datsun Sunny he finally sold to me when I left to join the RAF.
My Dad, who is now 84, worked hard, often made challenging decisions but always said that was fine as long as you could provide the justification.
Following his example and counsel, throughout my life, I have known when to have the courage to stop and walk away and when to stand and fight my ground; it was how I knew that setting up Hough & Bollard was the right thing to do and I have not looked back.
There are many people who in everyday life have demonstrated extraordinary courage and bravery and I am always in awe of their single mindedness
Coinslot: International Women’s Day is all about female trailblazers and handing their experiences on to other women. In your career, what key experiences would you like to pass on and are you seeing significant change for younger women in business today?
Debbie Hough: Until very recently I was a governor for the local secondary school and was particularly keen on the careers, because this was woefully lacking when I went to school.
I live in quite a rural area where some students, particularly girls, are not challenged to fulfil their potential and they lack aspiration.
Having missed out on female influence in my education I have been keen to push for inspirational female figures to feature in the curriculum including in the literature choices.
I have encouraged the school to engage with local business women like myself to go into the school and share their stories, and hopefully once we are back to normal that will get off the ground.
I believe that it is getting easier for young women to enter the business world and succeed and I enjoy mentoring those who seek my advice.
I started my legal training as a single parent with two kids at primary school, initially studying at Lincoln University and then driving a 4 hour round trip several times a week to Sheffield University to complete my training, whilst also working part time as a paralegal.
I left my studies until the evening when the kids had gone to bed so I could spend as much time as possible with them.
It was hard work but I had a light at the end of the tunnel to focus on and the determination instilled by my dad. I would say to anyone that if you want to succeed you need to have confidence in your own abilities; learn the patience to stand back and see both sides of any argument, have the courage to fight for what you know to be the truth and fair, and the wisdom to know when to walk away.
Do not bend yourself to fit another’s ideal, it will only make you unhappy and life is just too short!
Coinslot: Looking back, what have been your best and not so best (!) experiences as a businesswoman?
Debbie Hough: One of my best experiences was very recently when I was asked to do a talk for the Lincolnshire Federation of Small Businesses as a successful business woman running her own business; I had recently received a Community Champion award for getting our local Coronavirus Support Group up and running and starting a local foodbank.
To be frank, I initially felt like an imposter and thought they must have asked the wrong person, but it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I have achieved with Hough & Bollard, the number of clients I have who are so willing to recommend me to others and as we say up north “I’m right chuffed”!!
Not so best experiences, probably the first few years when I knew few in the industry and would spend three days at EAG just walking the hall trying to meet and engage with others; thankfully Ian Eason offered me a base with a table on the Instance Automatics stand and which I will always be grateful for.
Coinslot: What changes do you want to see evolve over the next few years for both women and the new wave of business people – both men and women?
Debbie Hough: I want to see a fairer world for everyone where your gender, age and skin tone play no part in how you succeed; it needs to start in school with children been given the best education possible and taught to aspire to achieve.
We need to work out a fairer tax system where the large faceless corporations who lurk online pay a fair share of taxes that are due at the point of consumption instead of finding ways to evade what is morally due, after all it’s our population involved in the creation and/or delivery of the services and products and their employers need to contribute more to ensuring our population is looked after.
I also want to see a world where parents teach their children to respect others for their differences to end the harassment and bullying through cultural and socio economic divide that leads to exclusion division and self-harming.