On the occasion of International Women’s Day – the global day in which the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women are celebrated – we introduce the next in our series of interviews with Malta’s accomplished businesswomen: Ann Fenech, former Managing Partner at Fenech and Fenech.
Qualifying in Malta in 1986, Ann made the first steps in her legal career in London, as a junior lawyer with international shipping law firm Holman Fenwick and Willan (HFW). It was there that her lifelong love affair with maritime law began.
“I learnt a great deal, and in the meantime also pursued an LLM in maritime law as a part-time student,” she recalls, before moving to New Orleans in 1991. “I was seconded from HFW to a shipping law firm right on the Mississippi, and was there for two years,” Ann says.
Returning to Malta in 1992, Ann joined Fenech and Fenech, because “out of the three firms that offered me a job, they were the only ones who were prepared to take up my suggestion to set up a marine litigation department.” To this day, they are the only law firm on the island with this dedicated department.
In 2008, Ann was asked to take over the role of Managing Partner of the firm, and she did, on one condition: that her tenure would last no longer than three years. “Three years became six, six became nine and nine became 12,” she smiles, noting how at the end of 2019, she informed the partners that 2020 would be her last year as MP. She now focuses entirely on marine litigation and overseas maritime commitments.
Looking back on the start of her career, the former Managing Partner admits that initially, she faced the challenge of being a very young foreigner working in a highly specialized city law firm. “That can be quite daunting,” she admits, but feels she probably considers it more daunting today than she did at the time. “I feel truly privileged to have been raised by parents who always instilled in us the idea that the world is there for the taking provided you are prepared to work hard with integrity, professionalism and passion,” Ann says, admitting that this has always coloured her approach.
Over the years, if she wanted something badly enough, she was prepared to put in the work. “If I reach my objective that’s great, if not, I get over it and move on. I never dwell very long on things that don’t come my way, and I have never concluded that something did not come my way because of my gender. I have never thought in terms of gender.”
And, with an impressive career which also featured being elected President of the Malta Maritime Law Association and Vice President to the Comite Maritime International, Ann does not feel she ever faced greater obstacles to reach top positions than her male counterparts.
“I would be lying through my teeth if I were to say that it was harder for me to reach the very top of my career because I am a woman,” she says. Directing my attention to the Board of Fenech and Fenech, which is made up of eight female and nine male directors, she notes that “this was achieved not through any form of quota but by appointments which were based only and solely on merit.”
The former Managing Director does admit, however, that her personal experience may not reflect that of others, and acknowledges that women in other organisations may indeed find it harder to get to top positions.
Listing potential reasons for this, Ann mentions raising a family. “Giving birth and raising a child is very probably the most demanding, intensive job anyone can do,” she affirms, requiring women to make the choice between progressing in their career, suspending it temporarily or, most difficult of all, both. Pointing out that places of work can help enormously in this regard, she says, “at Fenech and Fenech we were the first law firm to put facilities in place to enable our new mums to bring their children to work with them. This was fantastic for the lawyers involved who wanted to get back to their clients and work whilst not feeling guilty about leaving their newborn behind.”
Apart from that, Ann says that over the years, she has noticed a greater lack of confidence in highly competent women, when compared to their male counterparts. “Whilst competence is obviously a sine qua non, self-confidence and belief in oneself are crucial in encouraging others to believe that you can make it to the topmost positions in any organisation,” she says, adding that oftentimes, “men are generally better at selling themselves, which gives them the edge.”
Having said that, she does feel that “sheer ignorance and stupidity” does exist, where even in larger companies, one may find a narrow-minded male CEO who believes that a woman cannot do a high-powered job as well as a man. “In the face of this type of situation, the question is whether such a highly motivated and competent woman would actually want to work in an organisation where the CEO has this dim view of life. I would not, and my advice would be to move on and find more appreciative employers – it will be their loss,” she quips.
Speculating on how to deal with the issue of self-belief, Ann admits that while some are born confident, others need to learn. “How we bring up our boys and girls is crucial. We need to raise our boys to believe that achievement in life is not about gender but about competence. I have raised two boys and I can assure you that neither would even dream of thinking that women are less capable than men. Those who have girls must bring them up believing that they can be anything they wish to be, provided they work hard, with integrity and professionalism.”
Commenting on the lack of female representation at board level in Malta, Ann believes that it is crucial for corporates to understand how much better evenly balanced boards actually work in the best interest of the organisation. “A board made up of competent males and females brings a very special dynamic – egos are left outside; positions are less entrenched and there is, funnily enough, a greater degree of civility,” she smiles, adding that most importantly, a board made up of competent males and females brings the very best of humanity to the table, acting as the perfect melting pot of good ideas in order to take the corporate world forward to meet the demands of the 21st century.
Having been Managing Partner for 12 years, Ann’s advice to women who may be struggling to reach top management positions within their company is this:
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