Break the duality of women

In a new column exploring the intersection of marketing and gender, Helen James, co-founder of Creative Equals/Business, says training and workplace initiatives alone will not be enough to get more women to the top. Instead it’s about removing long-held beliefs and behaviours, and marketers are in a perfect position to help drive this change.

First published on Marketing Week

During Lockdown 1.0 I felt like I was on a constant cycle of throwing lunch together for the family/on a call with my finance director/looking for something to keep my youngest entertained. Confined inside that household bubble – the one shockingly but also semi-accurately depicted by that now-infamous government ad – I realised I was missing the voices of all the assertive female leaders I’d come to know.

Were they too all at home, mid-juggle, battling to keep families and teams afloat? No doubt. Would they all magically reappear overnight, as soon as lockdown ended and women’s now twice-as-huge invisible load lifted? Hopefully.

I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing female CMOs about gender diversity since then. During those conversations, I kept hearing that while some good work has been done to remove the tangible barriers to women’s equal participation in the workforce – flexible working, for example – it’s just as much the intangible, highly nuanced pieces that prevent women from marching up that corporate ladder.

Take, for instance, the fact female business leaders are far less likely than men to say they intend to stay with their current employer – a gap that has only grown over the past two years, according to one global report. At a time when we need more women in leadership roles, not less, this is a disastrous finding.

Not enough is understood about the very real stress associated with the duality of being a (senior) woman in the workplace.

The report suggests the solution to the problem is to work with leaders to reassess target, to understand what support women need and ensure they get the right training, talent and technology. Well, yes. Those are all essential points. But they are pretty generic and apply to male leaders just as much as female leaders.

To get to grips with why more female senior leaders are leaving roles than men, you have to appreciate the reality of women’s daily lived experience in those roles. And for me, not enough is understood about the very real stress associated with the duality of being a (senior) woman in the workplace – the pressure of having to juggle so-called masculine behaviour traits with the more stereotypically feminine qualities of empathy and compassion.

In fact, many limiting experiences I’ve heard about from senior female marketers are cultural more than genuinely structural. It’s culture, of course, that can create a workplace dynamic where women have to ‘play the game’, laughing at the right stuff, smiling in the right places and always being careful to be vocal but not too vocal. Don’t even get me started on ‘banter culture’, where the most important meetings happen in the pub, and the once-permitted dick jokes are acceptable from men, but never from women. A point that, of course, not only illustrates how women as a whole are impacted, but also anyone whose religious or cultural reference points differ from the majority demographic in a workplace and leaves them feeling excluded.

Stop the exodus

The point is, dealing with a workplace culture into which you don’t automatically ‘fit’ as a woman – all the while juggling your mental to-do list and taking calls from the school/elderly parents – is simply exhausting. And particularly so in a dynamic and fast-paced industry like ours. Therefore, is it any wonder that more and more women are choosing to leave marketing and find work opportunities that offer them more flexibility, more support and, importantly, a more open and inclusive work environment?

For me, it’s this duality that’s one of the most significant hurdles we need to overcome if we’re to change the shape of leadership and ensure more women in marketing feel able to make the journey to the top.

The good news is that, surely, as creative communicators we’re best equipped to help create that change. Because it’s not just about training programmes, workplace initiatives or mentoring, it’s also – and most fundamentally – about changing long-held beliefs and behaviours.

As an immediate action, here’s one simple step that businesses can take to ensure they not only attract but importantly retain top female talent. Acknowledge the place stereotypical gender behaviour traits or qualities hold in your company and how they might shape women’s or men’s daily experiences at work. If characteristics more typically associated with men’s leadership styles dominate, work quickly to fix this.

Because after all, now that patience, empathy, communication, active listening and balance are all associated with increased corporate performance, isn’t it time businesses truly embrace that reality? We need to double down on creating environments where women – and men – can proudly lead with those qualities 100% of the time.

Goodbye duality, hello consistency.

Helen James in the managing director of agency CPB London and the co-founder of Creative Equals/Business, a leadership programme and community for women in the creative industries. She is focused on ensuring more women in marketing and creative roles are able to thrive at the top.