Time to enhance women’s visibility in the communication industry

Senior consultant at Watterson Marketing Communications Whitney Erickson, with input from her colleagues Laura Bradley, Chloe Curby, and Kate Melville, looks at the importance of women in senior roles within the communications industry.

It’s near impossible to be visible when you can hardly be seen.

The importance of workplace visibility creates a problem for many women as a large portion of their contributions remain unseen, overlooked, or undervalued.

Add to that the startling lack of women in leadership positions and you’re left with a recipe for exactly where we are now. And without action, this is where we will remain.

Women in leadership positions

According to the Media Federation of Australia’s 2022 industry census, women make up 62 per cent of the talent pool within communications. Despite this, women account for only 46 per cent of management roles and even less in executive and leadership positions.

More broadly, and according to the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the statistics as of 2022 suggest women hold only 17.6 per cent of chair positions, 31.2 per cent of directorships, and account for a mere 19.4 per cent of CEOs.

It seems one of the main issues is a lack of women in leadership positions. Despite, according to consulting firm McKinsey, compared with men in similar positions, women do considerably more work to support employee well-being and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), thus improving employee retention and satisfaction. It’s also the case that companies with a higher number of female leaders outperform those dominated by men.

There is the inaccurate belief that creating more space for women will remove space for men. There are enough seats at the table for everyone.

For example, think about a board or leadership team that consists of four men and two women. We need to shift the narrative away from removing two of the men, to simply creating space for two additional women. Initiatives like this need to come from the top down with action, not lip-service.

The next generation of flexible work

Work-from-home mandates and subsequent hybrid models unintentionally created flexibility that facilitated huge strides in women’s visibility. However, it’s worth noting that women have been asking (occasionally begging) for more flexible working conditions for generations. It’s disheartening to think that slight adjustments to work flexibility ten years ago could have set us on the path to being ten years ahead of where we are now.

Flexibility of working arrangements is now standard, not just in our industry, but across the board. The next step is to explore possible variations to accommodate the needs of primary caregivers.

While it is the case there has been a delightful increase in the number of men taking an equal role in parenting and other care-related areas, unfortunately, it is still overwhelmingly seen as the domain of women.

Numerous studies have shown the connection between flexible working arrangements and increased productivity and revenue, so there is little reason not to extend this in a way that actively encourages women to contribute to the workplace more easily, and in turn be recognised as viable candidates for leadership. The statistics show this, as an initiative, will be to the benefit of all.

Acknowledgment of high performance

One thing I have heard women say across three generations is that we are far less likely than men to put our hat in the ring for recognition or award consideration, and less likely to accept accolades for a job well done.

It isn’t ability in question, it’s humility. Though considered a virtue, it shouldn’t get in the way of accepting the accolades that have been earned.

This discrepancy could be addressed by leadership teams proactively seeking examples of high performance, rather than waiting for people to nominate themselves. Alternatively, employees could be encouraged to submit their peers for awards, with an equal gender spread encouraged.

Words have power, and that power favours one gender

As communicators, we understand that words have power. In the workplace these words tend to have a gender. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed managers used more positive words to describe men in performance reviews than women. ‘Analytical’, ‘competent’, ‘athletic’ were used to describe men, and ‘compassionate’, ‘enthusiastic’, and ‘organised’ were often used to describe women. Those ‘female’ traits are inherently dismissive, and servile.

We need to assess how we talk and write about our female colleagues and leaders, and elevate them from within.

Is ’gossipy’ a negative trait, or a key networking skill required in communications? Is ‘maternal’ an unnecessary trait to be easily dismissed, or a warm and caring way to foster inclusion and value? Are indecisive workers more considerate of risks and benefits? Do excitable team members elevate the workplace experience? Is she domineering or confident?

When we actively create space for women to be seen and recognised in the workforce, we start to change attitudes and long-held perceptions of what people can or cannot do.

Whitney Erickson is senior consultant with communications consultancy Watterson.


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