Meet the faces behind Plymouth’s successful International Women’s Day Conference

Alexis Bowater is best known for her work as a journalist and as a former anchor for ITV News. Today, over coffee in her kitchen, the tables are turned. Today, it’s her turn to answer the questions, and some are harder to answer than others.

These days, Alexis runs her hugely successful PR and media company, Bowater Communications, where she helps businesses with campaigns, media training and promotional films. She also organises the Venus Awards scheme in Devon, which celebrates women in business.

But that’s not all she does. Together with Clare Geraghty, premier market development manager at Barclays in Plymouth, she set up the Plymouth Women in Business Networking group. The idea was to bring together women from across the business spectrum as a supportive, inclusive peer network that would also provide opportunities for them to do business together.

The group meets on the first Monday of every month in the upstairs space at The Treasury, at 12.30-2pm, a time that fits in with women’s lives.

It was, admits Alexis, something of a leap into the unknown: “We weren’t entirely sure how much of a need there was,” she said, “but we pretty soon discovered that there was a very big need. Almost every single month we have a capacity of 120 people. It’s never all the same people turning up – at least half are new every month. And quite often, we have a waiting list of people who want to come along.”

The group has 1,700 followers on Facebook and a weekly reach of over 12,000.

So, to tap into this clear appetite for women in the city to network together, Alexis and Clare decided to do something bigger. Last year, they organised an International Women’s Day conference to coincide with the global event, which takes place on 8 March.

“It was a brave and bold move, which was entirely appropriate, given that the theme for International Women’s Day last year was Be Bold for Change!” said Alexis.

“We are absolutely committed to partnership working and working with as many people as possible, so we linked up with a number of other organisations across the city and decided to put on the conference at the Holiday Inn (now Crowne Plaza).

“We had 400 people. The room was absolutely packed. And the calibre of the speakers was extraordinary – Anne James, chief executive of Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, Charles Hackett, head of Mayflower 400 and Jodine Boothby of Gummy Glove.

“These are high fliers, volunteering their time for the event. It was testament to the importance of International Women’s Day.”

Alexis and Clare are busy organising the 2018 conference with the same co-organisers as 2017, South West Women in Construction, South West Women in Property and Womble Bond Dickinson. This year’s event takes place at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel from 2-6pm on 8 March.

At the time of going to press, guest speakers were being finalised. They include senior women from the Bank of England and the Royal Navy, and a female from the STEM network in the South West. But this isn’t a women-only event and there will also be an inspirational male speaker.

Clare and Alexis are fully expecting another full house.

Which brings us to those difficult, hard-to-answer questions, which, ever the journalist, Alexis poses herself: “There are more serious issues here and it goes beyond women in business. We need to ask, as a society, why women are coming to these gender-specific networking groups.

“What is it that’s bringing them to this safe, warm environment once a month? The work that I’ve done previously has been to combat gender-specific crimes. I worked for a long time as chief executive of Network for Surviving Stalking (Alexis was herself a victim of cyber-stalking).

“We need to look at the bigger picture, we need to look at the statistics, we need to look at a room full of 120 women and remember in our heads the statistics that show that one-in-five women will be stalked at one point in their lifetime; half of women will be sexually harassed in the workplace – and those are only the women who are owning up to it; one-in-four women will be subjected to some form of domestic violence; one-in-four women will be seriously sexually assaulted or raped at some point in their life; and two women a week are being murdered by their partners or ex-partners.

“Now, if you look at those statistics and then you look at a room of 120 women, you will know that a significant proportion of them have been, are or will be in very serious trouble at some time in their life, purely because they are a woman.

“So I don’t think it’s any surprise at all, when we look at those statistics, that women are voting with their feet and going to a safe, supportive place to do business.

“This year’s International Women’s Day theme is Press for Progress. But this is not just about women, this is about men getting involved as well and being part of future change, so that we will no longer have to have these conversations.”

Alexis and Clare do all this work on a voluntary basis but, says Alexis, the results are hugely satisfying: “We are pretty open and shameless about our ethos, which is simple: It’s nice to be nice, and if you can engineer these relationships, then it’s good for business – but it’s also good for the city that we live in.

“For us, it is extremely rewarding to see it working because there is no doubt, the evidence is there, that thousands of women in business have been linked up by these events and they all working for each other. And that’s wonderful.”
As with the monthly networking meetings, the International Women’s Day conference is free to attend. Visit the Plymouth Women in Business Networking Facebook page to book a place via the Eventbrite link.

First published in the Plymouth Magazine – February 2018

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