Although Women’s History Month implores us to champion women who have paved the way—I’ve been highlighting women in tech, like Hedy Lamar, Grace Hopper, Annie Easley, and Katherine Johnson—it’s also a powerful reminder to revaluate equality in this moment, one hopefully inspiring rising generations of women leaders and innovators. The PR industry is largely dominated by women, taking up 60 to 80 percent of our workforce. However, only 20 percent of the senior leadership positions at PR agencies are held by women. The tech industry houses even fewer female leads, with women making up only 17 percent of Fortune 500 CIOs.
Most of us recognize a good leader, but can we instinctively be one ourselves? We can rattle off all the qualities that make a good leader. We know strong leaders are good problem solvers, confident and organized. They are consistent, courageous, someone you can trust. Simon Sinek said it simply: A leader has one thing—followers. But being a leader that other people want to follow can unfortunately be one of the easiest things to get wrong.
Studies show women possess—and often more intuitively—more leadership qualities than men. Qualities like the ability to inspire and motivate, communicate powerfully and prolifically, act with integrity and honesty to help build trust, and help develop others’ growth. Even though we know these qualities can make us good leaders, someone people can trust in, do we hold back out of fear that others unconsciously do not associate feminine qualities with leadership?
Many of us have had experiences where we’ve questioned who we were based on false expectations of what a leader should be. In my early career, I was told I was too passionate, too caring, and too warm hearted, all of which led me to lose confidence. Through chatting with mentors who had undergone similar struggles, I came to terms with the fact that these qualities weren’t a hindrance; they’re the qualities that actually made me a natural leader. By owning my leadership style—caring, listening, making people feel safe—I led teams that won awards, broke records on employee and client retention and revenue, and eventually made the jump to spearheading my own agency.
Mentorship plays a vital role in ensuring future generations of women feel empowered to rise to the top of any industry as the next entrepreneurs, presidents, and CEOs. Is there advice you would give your younger self? Would you tell her to be bold and own her innate leadership qualities? We have the opportunity to indirectly do so every day. Young women starting out in their careers need a relatable, and reliable confidant who can share stories from their own journeys to help them learn the ropes, seeking guidance and stability in leadership they can trust.
Agency leaders are heading up a dramatically different workforce than they were 10 years ago. Millennials and Gen Z are searching for authenticity, requiring individualization and personal attention, calling agency managers to practice transparency, open communication and humanity. Consider starting an organized mentorship program in your agency, assigning members of the management team to younger employees. Not only will this give junior staff the guidance they crave, it also allows management to become effective mentors, contributing to their own professional growth. Building frequent check-ins between these mentors/mentees forms a strong relationship younger employees can lean on throughout their journeys figuring out their true professional selves. Industry organizations can also connect leaders from across the industry to share stories and approaches to rising in the ranks—for example, the PR Council’s SHEQuality project.
It’s also critical to encourage leadership qualities in young girls, particularly in college and high school. Honing these skills early on will create a strong pipeline of young women to become the leaders of tomorrow. Agenda-setters and entrepreneurs in every industry—whether it be PR, tech, or anywhere really—can guest lecture classes, offer internships, invite students to shadow them. Even just having a quick coffee and conversation can inspire young women to not just become go-getters, but show them that the best leaders have open hearts and use them to lift up others.