The Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) in New York states that in STEM sectors alone, more than half (52%) of qualified women quit their jobs in their mid-30s due to a lack of corporate support for work-life balance. As a working woman this is a discouraging statistic – and one that contradicts the positive messages communicated to me during my childhood nearly 20 years ago.
Growing up during the 80s and 90s, my teachers — at school and home – consistently communicated and reinforced the message that women and men should be treated equally. Knowing the boys I sat alongside in class heard the same message, I fully believed that my generation of women would enter and excel in the workforce as equals to their male counterparts. I enthusiastically pursued my academic passions of maths and science acknowledging – but not feeling intimidated by – these traditionally male dominated fields of study.
Fast-forward to 2014 – with a successful career and daughters of my own – and I am now fully conscious of the challenges women face in business, and the barriers that can prevent career progression. These challenges are particularly apparent in STEM industries (science, technology, engineering and maths), the sector in which I now specialise. Frequently the act of establishing and then perfecting a role within these inherently male domains is far more difficult than getting to grips with the job description itself. And I often find myself in the position where I need to prove myself more quickly and effectively than the man sitting beside me in a meeting.
Two challenges present themselves most prevalently in my experience. The first is making my mark in what is still predominantly a man’s world, while balancing my own personality instincts. In many instances, women need to express desirable commercial traits such as strength of character, resilience, leadership and technical proficiency, while at the same time leaning on more ‘feminine’ skills that include being supportive, nurturing and inclusive – all proven traits that help a leader drive their business to success. In 2012,reported to the Harvard Business Review that, “at every level, more women were rated as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows”. However, being too strident may put you at risk of being labelled a ‘feminist’ or ‘full of testosterone’ (comments I have heard during my career); too emotive and you are dismissed as weak (a constant fear). While naked ambition can sometimes be considered unattractive in a woman, it is usually admirable in a man. Striking this balance is a constant struggle.
From a personal level, the hardest part of my career to date – and my second noted challenge – has arisen since having children. The struggle to juggle the pressures of motherhood with a senior role in an international business takes the concept of multi-tasking to a whole new level. For many women, at the point where they become highly experienced and proficient in their job, the challenges of motherhood forces them to make a difficult choice: career or family. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are countless examples of senior businesswomen achieving both top-flight careers and a happy family life (my holy grail), and there are immense opportunities for others to follow in their wake. This is most recently exemplified by the promotion of Denise Colella to CEO at global optimisation technology business, Maxifier. And my own forward-thinking company offers the flexibility that I am grateful for every day. The ability to strike a balance between working life and family life encourages my loyalty and trust in spades. The business, in turn, is rewarded with a stronger and more balanced workforce.
In my own role, I spend a lot of time talking tech to smart people in male-dominated companies across the world and rarely encounter outright or deliberate prejudice. Advertising technology is a fast-moving, progressive sector with an influx of women all keen to make their mark. While it can be challenging pursuing my career – which involves a great deal of international travel alongside raising a family in London – I would not have it any other way. In my opinion, women will continue to be successful in the workplace by capitalising on the traits that make them strong leaders, and powering through some of the more negative associations including insecurity, modesty and passiveness. This is clearly already starting to happen, with BoardWatch reporting the transition of 21 all-male boards in the FTSE 100 in 2011 to just five in 2013.
In addition to my own internal personality checks, I ultimately believe that businesses need to place a greater emphasis on flexible working practices to help women stay in the workplace past their child-rearing years. If my daughters decide to start a family, I would like to see the dilemma of choosing between a career or family become a thing of the past — or that it is accepted and acknowledged as a delicate balancing act. Women need flexible working practices offered alongside any standard job benefit that includes healthcare or pension contributions. In years to come, the workforce — both men and women — should benefit from a blended career and personal life, empowering all to open the window to a world of greater opportunity.
Jenna Griffith is SVP.