Gillian Drakeford IKEA UK
Gillian Drakeford is the chief of Ikea UK and Ireland IKEA

When it comes to gender equality, we've come a long way in adjusting mindsets and stereotypes in society to achieve equal representation for women.

Across the world, women have been provided with opportunities denied to previous generations and we are continuing to flourish as inspirational leaders in all walks of life, from politics and business to science and more.

But this International Women's Day serves as a reminder that we must continue to celebrate women and triumph them in the workplace.

According to the World Economic Forum, the gender gap won't fully close until 2186. This shocking statistic shows that we cannot be complacent and there's still much work to be done to change the way today's society views women in the workplace. With concerning evidence about how the gender gap still exists, how do we create change?

In my opinion, we must not take female leadership to mean only supporting those at the top or in the boardroom. We need to work from the bottom up as the long-term solution to increasing confidence in women and closing the gender gap. We need to support women at the beginning of their careers and instil confidence from the start.

When I started working on the shop floor at Ikea Warrington in 1987, I'd never have believed that I would take on my current role as Country Manager for the UK & Ireland. With the support of my managers and co-workers, I began to recognise my own strengths and believe in my capability as a leader, allowing me to take on positions in the store's management team and run the Ikea business in Hong Kong and China for many years.

After taking a break from working at Ikea to start a family, I balanced life as a mum with studying a Business and Economics degree at university and trained to become a teacher. But as soon as I received an offer to head up Ikea in the Hong Kong region, I knew it was my calling.

What was originally intended to be a two-year stint turned into 15 fantastic years, where I managed to integrate a Scandinavian brand into a completely new market – all while bringing up my children. This was followed by taking the position of Deputy Retail Manager in China, where I established local leadership programmes to encourage female leaders within the business.

After falling pregnant with my third child, I made the decision to take my full 12 months' maternity leave and was fully supported by Ikea to do so. For me, this decision underlined my commitment to lead by example, and I strongly believe this has been a driving force in changing the outlook of women in business.

Following maternity leave, I continued to progress, taking on the position of Retail Manager for China. And before I returned to the UK in my current role, I was determined to pass on the same opportunities I was given to my colleagues, mentoring and handing over the reins to another female leader in the process.

I'm proud of my personal experience as a woman in business, and I hope my story can help inspire other women to progress in their careers. What's more, this demonstrates the importance of a company supporting you at all moments in life, from being a young adult just out of school, to a mother and a business leader.

I recognise the importance of providing all Ikea co-workers with the same opportunities to be supported and encouraged in the workplace and throughout their personal lives. As a business leader, I'm passionate about providing women with the confidence to achieve their ambitions. This is at the heart of IKEA's values, with co-workers being our most important and invaluable asset.

For Ikea , gender diversity is a principal priority and is not something we take lightly. 52% of co-workers across our stores and 50% of managers in our service office are women. I'm proud to walk into work and into our stores and see the talented women that make up each and every team.

This International Women's Day, my message is clear and simple: we must continue pioneering for the next generation of female leaders. And let's not stop there. Equality needs to be achieved across the board, extending beyond gender to include race, religion, nationality, age and sexual orientation.

Because in business, true success can only be achieved with an equal and diverse workforce.

Gillian Drakeford is the Country Manager for the UK and Ireland at Ikea.