Ellwood Atfield founded the Women in Communications Careers Network in 2014 as a group for senior women leaders in communications. The group facilitates networking among peers to share best practices, develop their careers, and aid the progression of the next generation of women in communications and advocacy.
The relaunch brought some of the 50 most formidable women leaders in communications to the Ellwood Atfield Gallery. In the year where many will be celebrating the centenary of women getting the vote, the questions addressed was how have we progressed toward gender parity in that time and, as importantly, how can we hasten progress going forward?
Catherine May was a tour de force taking the audience through the current situation, examples from her career and advice on how to ‘play the game to change the game’. As an executive director of corporate affairs for three FTSE 100 businesses and as an executive coach she has seen it all.
(L-R) Nicola Bates, Director at Ellwood Atfield, and Catherine May, keynote speaker.
Catherine called for senior women in communications to be proactive and aggressive in creating opportunities for themselves. Pulling from her own experiences of succeeding in male-dominated corporates, she talked through some hurdles that we should expect to face, how they can be cleared, and what we can do to knock them down for the women who follow.
“We’re inhabiting a world where the rules have been set by someone else…It is only by working hard and working tactically that we can overcome the barriers to women moving into executive committee roles.” – Catherine May
There are a number of barriers inherent in the world of business which can prevent women from moving into executive committee roles. Catherine identified some of these, including:
- CEO/Director pipeline roles (such as managing a “critical project” or a “line” role like production or sales) being dominated by men, and the lack of understanding around functional roles that women tend to dominate (like communications).
- A lack of natural sponsorship and mentoring opportunities for women by senior men in the business. This is often exacerbated by the increased responsibility women take on in the home meaning that informal networking (i.e. post-work drinks) ends up being less accessible.
- Gender stereotyping and unconscious bias – by both men and women. This includes perceptions such as: women are less invested in their own career progression than men; that promoting women to senior positions is unfamiliar and therefore “risky”; or that women who get promoted to executive committee level are “hard” or “unpleasant” people – i.e. not someone the ex-comm want to work with or that other women want to emulate.
So, if women want to be promoted, and promoting women is good for companies (as demonstrated by this study by research body Catalyst) what can the group do to enable a better environment for their teams.
A theme that ran throughout Catherine’s experiences was that women need to become better at expressing what they do in terms that senior male colleagues understand. We must make our work and the value of our work more visible, rather than allowing ourselves to be boxed in as “comms women”. Or to put it another way: think of your career as a campaign.
- Make it clear what commercial, strategic value our work as senior communications staff brings.
- Always be seen to be contributing. Get yourself involved on critical project teams if you can.
- Play the game as much as you can. Attend networking events (formal and informal) and seek out sponsorship. If this means conversations with a partner about how work around the home is split, then have that conversation.
- Demonstrate that you understand the wider business plan and hammer home how your team de-risks the business.
- Always be ready with an elevator pitch of what you’ve been working on – you never know what conversation you might be having next.
Catherine also spoke about the importance of supporting women with less experience, so that the barriers become less daunting with each generation. Whether through offering mentoring, taking the time to give constructive feedback, or setting up a network for young women in your organisation, we can help build the skillsets and self-belief needed to create a culture of women succeeding throughout communications. The women of WCCN have a responsibility to empower the next generation.
The WCCN wants to take the momentum from our relaunch and Catherine’s message, and move forward in helping our members to further their careers. To help shape our future work, Claire Jarvis, is conducting a piece of research into our members and your experiences. We would therefore be grateful if you could complete this short survey to help inform and influence the focus and future activities of the network.
If you’re interested in the work of the WCCN, or are a woman communications leader and would like to discuss your career progression please get in touch with Nicola Bates, the interim chair of the WCCN and a director at Ellwood Atfield.