Celebrating International Women’s Day: An Interview with Ann Swain, Global CEO of APSCo



To celebrate International Women’s Day we spoke to Ann Swain, best-selling author and founder and Global CEO of APSCo, an international trade association representing the professional recruitment sector with offices globally.

Before establishing APSCo in 1999, Ann had over thirty years of recruitment experience, including time as the UK Sales Director of multinational staffing firms and the Managing Director of recruitment training company Learning Curve.

She was awarded a fellowship from the NSPCC in 2009 and the Trade Association Forum’s prestigious Leadership Award in 2018. Ann is currently on the SIA’s ‘Global Power 50’ list of the most powerful women in international recruitment.

We spoke to Ann about her journey and experiences to becoming a recognised female leader in the recruitment industry.

As the CEO of APSCo and best-selling author of The Professional Recruiter’s Handbook, can you tell us about your journey to becoming such a prominent and recognised leader in your field?

Well, it takes me back quite a long time, as you can probably imagine! I graduated from York University in Experimental Psychology and Biology. Having come from a working class background,  I grew up on a council estate, sixth floor with no academic prowess shown in the family beforehand. So when I came out of university, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. I then went to a recruitment company called Graduate Appointments, and they placed me in a job selling advertising space for a computing magazine and I spent a  year doing that which was the best training of my whole life. From there got headhunted into a recruitment company that we were selling advertising space to, and of course, it was all paper-orientated advertising. So I really got into the recruiting market pretty much by accident, which in those days, most people did. I worked for a couple of recruitment companies for quite a period of time before being headhunted by a software company. So I was then in the IT market and I became their recruitment manager and then HR manager. Then another software company headhunted me and I was their HR manager, before thinking actually, there could be some good training that the recruitment market could have. So consequently I created a training company called Learning Curve that trained recruitment people at the top end in recruitment skills, including selling skills, management skills and that kind of stuff. I sold that company to a very large recruitment company who asked me to become the UK sales director. So I had 250 Recruitment consultants reporting in to me through different managers as they came upward, and then I actually left that role to create APSCo. So very much recruitment oriented, which I’m proud of – actually very proud of.

Recruitment has generally had a bit of a reputation for being a male-dominated field. So what was it like when you first started out as a woman in recruitment? Do you think that the industry has changed at all?

It’s totally changed, thank goodness. I think the reality is I was fairly oblivious to the fact that recruitment was quite male-dominated. I did have a female manager at that time, so I didn’t really look beyond that because I didn’t know the recruitment market. You could certainly see even in the years I spent selling ad space to directors at recruitment companies, that they were all men. So going into recruitment, there was a female manager, but the rest of the team pretty much was very male-dominated. I’d say that there are huge differences today, but I think there are differences across the whole of the working environment in the UK, and most countries out there. I think the recruitment market has matured, and it’s become much more professional and in doing that, it needs to recruit for itself, top-level able people, and that has meant it needed to look beyond 25-year-old men that had a decent suit. That in turn, has meant it has needed to look after women to attract and retain them within the business. Therefore, there’s been some big changes, but it’s taken a long time.

I think it still needs to become more family aware, it’s not wholly there yet, but it’s definitely heading in the right direction. The good companies are more able to achieve that, and I think it’s much better at looking at it’s culture within the whole marketplace. But individual companies are better at looking at their culture and what their culture needs to be to be, as a good employer brand so that people can choose to come into specific companies, whether they’re male or female, and I think that’s great.

How have you navigated challenges and obstacles in your career as a woman?

I think it’s very easy in looking back to blame any lack of success,  because I was a woman. I was, I think relatively successful, but there were definitely challenges and I think that some of those were around whether going to the Spearmint Rhino bar was actually fun for the women in the business when it was a sales incentive sort of scenario or a Friday night jolly. You find yourself sitting there thinking “Is it me?” but in reality, this is not much fun. I think there are challenges that women can bring themselves to the recruitment market that can be negative and difficult to overcome. So I think culturally, there were some stupid things that were going on in those days, and much less of that is happening now. I do think that if we’re not careful, we can create our own challenges, actually, whether it be guilt that if we’ve got kids we’re not working hard enough. Whether it’s not speaking up in meetings, whether it’s not pushing our agenda forwards, because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do. So I’m not saying the fact that there are not as many women in top roles in the recruitment marketplace, is our fault, but I think we add to that, and so what I would say is that we can make our own opportunities. So many of the challenges I faced, I think they were created by me, actually. And I think once you can find your own happy place at the right recruitment company that provides you with opportunities to develop and opportunities to grow yourself, then you’re in the right place. Of course, there are challenges out there but things are definitely changing.

You have already touched on the fact that the industry needs to be more family orientated, and, you just mentioned the guilt that women often feel about balancing their careers with a family. So how have you in your career been able to balance your personal and professional life?

I think that’s a really big job, and I think women find that a much bigger job than men do generally, And again, it’s difficult to say all men and all women, so we need to be careful about that. I have a second marriage and between us, we have seven daughters. So there was a timeout a period of time when I had three daughters and was a single parent. And frankly, that was a juggle. It was a juggle because eight o’clock meetings on a Monday to get the team pumped was a pain in the arse for somebody like me with three kids that I needed to drop off at nursery school. There was always a big view that if you weren’t in the office and present then you probably weren’t doing any work. So people stayed longer hours to prove a point and definitely I’ve been part of that, and therefore, going to prize givings and events like that, you felt guilty. I think that has been a huge juggle. I’m somebody who’s pretty well organised and I like things to be planned. So, you know being on time, being there, being well organised,  and looking appropriately dressed, could give that impression that I wasn’t juggling. But there’s no question I’ve juggled, and I think that’s absolutely more difficult for women than it is for men. With regard to big obstacles and hurdles, I think that in some ways I’m a strong personality, and fairly oblivious to hurdles. I’m a push the hurdle out of the way or jump over it, and try and take a team with me kind of person. I think people can be like that, whether they’re male or female, but it’s more difficult, I think for women to be like that, with a view that it’s less expected of women to be like that. We like to be liked, we want to be part of the team, we don’t want to push ourselves above everybody else. But there’s sometimes if you want to get something done, you need to be doing that and making sure that things are achieved. I think I had a fairly strong desire to achieve things for the team and for the business, and that meant personal success for me. But it can mean that people don’t like you as much as women would quite like everybody to like us and you have to decide whether you’re worried about that.

How can the recruitment industry better support and promote women in the workplace?

I think that they can and I think the big thing is not only about recruiting them it is that support as you talk about to make sure they stay and fulfil what you need them to and what they need to do to fulfil themselves as well. So I think that we should attract a completely diverse workforce, and you know, women shouldn’t count as diverse, we’re over 51% of the population, frankly. Everyone knows McKinsey’s report saying that you’re more likely to make a profit with a more diverse group of people, especially in management and decision making positions. So I think that the recruitment market needs to embrace that. I think looking at what that diverse group of people need to be able to do a fantastic job, and if that is hybrid working some days at home, if it’s starting later, with flexible hours and finishing later, and working hours that allow you to pick up kids drop off kids or whatever else it may be. Those are the kinds of things that attract women. I think we need to be careful to remember that not all women have kids, or ever want kids! I think we need to make sure the culture within our recruitment companies aren’t just based around young men, that kind of very aggressive run at targets but they can be about women working in teams and individually to achieve really fantastic goals. I think that we do need to develop women and allow them to push themselves forward without fear of standing out or not being seen as a good team member within a company because sometimes that comes over as kind of weird, we’re worried that it’s going to be weird as a woman, if we push ourselves forward, we worry that people won’t like us much. If we are the natural leader in a group or somebody who starts to lead in different things. So we need to put ourselves forward. I think the recruitment market has more potential than any market to allow women to do brilliantly and the reason for that is we have targets, the targets are on our screens or in the old days, they were on our walls, sometimes they still are and nobody cares in recruitment, whether you’re a male, female, whether you’re in a wheelchair, nobody cares what your sexuality is, because what everyone’s trying to do is achieve those targets in the right way and create good relationships both with the customer base, the candidate base, and also within a team so you can achieve those targets. No one cares whether you’re male or female, when you want to take that opportunity to push yourself forward into a leadership role or a more specialist role. You need to be focused about moving your career forward and capitalising on the opportunities within the business you’re working. So the recruitment market, I think is a level playing field I really do. And that’s fantastic because let me tell you most markets aren’t so we are lucky to have that opportunity. Most women will leave a recruitment company because the culture isn’t quite right. Or that they feel that recruitment isn’t for them. That’s about the culture that’s about maybe being too hard hitting all the time, or you know, running at things that maybe could be done in a different way.

I remember speaking at a APSCo members event about women in the marketplace. It was at a very nice company based in the city and they had all sorts of great speakers. In the reception area, they had a play racing car for their consultants to have a go at, and as a woman does that really turn me on? or anyone I know who’s female? No, and yet, we’re so caught in a time warp. So they’re saying all the right things and yet a racing car in reception tells you that there’s a long way still to go to speak the language of women and everybody else.

So at APSCo you seem to have a very supportive and close-knit team. And I know that at APSCo one of your initiatives is really encouraging recruitment companies to be advocates for and implement diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So how have you yourself, throughout your career, really empowered and mentored other women in your workplace?

Well, I have done that actually, and I’m doing it even now. So I personally will always have a couple of mentees. They’re not always women, but they generally are women who come to me on a monthly basis. I have somebody called Emma and somebody called Anna, both of whom I mentor on a monthly basis. I’ve had some mentees previously as well and I find it really valuable. I think I learn as much as they do. We talk about things that they’re wanting to achieve and look at what they’re trying to do to achieve it and other options of how they can get there. I think it’s really really important. APSCo as a business has a lot of women there. Two of the senior leaders in the business are women – Sam Hurley, and Moya Rylands are both women. I mean, they’ve been fantastic, how lucky am I? I never thought about whether they were female or male, actually it was irrelevant, but they happen to be women and that’s been fantastic. That anyone with the level of power in any market as a woman, everyone assumes they’re going to be some cold psycho bitch and you so don’t need to be that person and so consequently, I think it’s about being warm. I think it’s about encouraging women across the piece, to take the opportunities, find the opportunities to do really well. I have seven daughters, my youngest is at university and the rest of them are amazing young women, with pretty impressive careers, far more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. If there’s anything that I’ve tried to communicate to them is not to be the cold-hearted, powerful woman, help people. Give them that leg up even if you didn’t get that yourself, give them the leg up to make sure that they can stand, you know, head and shoulders above you. And I think that’s really important. I think all women out there, especially in the recruitment market, that have gained some level of success, should mentor people, should create opportunities for them.

APSCo, for years was running a Women in Leadership programme, it’s become part of that bigger embrace DEI piece that we have. But it’s all been about empowering women to achieve the best that they can be. We’ve got a new training programme, actually, that we’ve been delivering in house but it’s being launched for International Women’s Day. It’s all about women in leadership roles and some of the problems that women can have, pushing themselves down and under estimating what they’ve achieved. So we’ve made a big effort, actually, and I think it’s hugely important. We will continue to make that kind of effort and so will I.

How do you see the role of female leadership in recruitment involving in the future?

I think there will be more female leaders. I think that the hybrid type of working helps those with a family. I think the flexibility and the idea that presenteeism isn’t where it’s all at, will help women. There used to be a view that you can’t be a leader in three or four days a week. Well, that’s ridiculous. I think COVID has helped women from that point of view. I think that the role of women as leaders has hugely evolved, I think there has been quite a big focus for anyone owning a recruitment company to look at spending money on developing those leaders. Any development will show the signs that it’s irrelevant whether you are a male or female in a leadership role, but also the shortage of really great leaders in the recruitment market means that we’re more desperate to train our own. They’re not thinking about whether they’re male or female, except creating better environments to attract women in and to keep them and train them to give them development to stay. So I think it’s only moving in the right direction, and that’s a fantastic thing for anyone who is currently in the recruitment market and wants to plan a long-term career. You don’t need to give it up if you have children. You can have an amazing career either way, as a male or female within the recruitment market. Don’t make excuses for yourself and hold yourself back.

What does International Women’s day mean to you? Do you think that days like these are still important to recognise?

I believe that International Women’s Day is still hugely important. It shines a light on what we can do to promote opportunities for women and for them to look at how they can progress in their careers. I do really hope that there will be a time when we don’t need to do that because it’s so obvious that women will be doing as well as men in their careers. If we look at March 8th we need to focus on it and that’s not about buying your PA lunch, it’s about providing opportunities for career advancement within your business, it’s about making sure that your team understand how they can capitalise on opportunities. Unfortunately, we still need International Women’s Day but I do look forward to that day when we totally don’t need to have one day because we need 365 days of the year to be about promoting women as well as everybody else. We’re not there yet, but I hope businesses do something positive to make a difference rather than just talk about it.

End of interview

Thank you so much Ann for your time, for sharing your insights into women’s experience in the recruitment industry, and also for sharing so openly about your personal experience and inspirational story with us!

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