In the past, I declined to participate in stories or panels that focused on “women-owned” businesses because I didn’t want to be labeled as a minority enterprise and I felt that the principles of solid business management did not differ by gender. However, over time I’ve realized that like it or not, gender does affect business success and I am proud of the women-owned business and gender-friendly culture we have built at rbb Communications.
When I began my PR career in the mid-eighties, the agency world was dominated by female practitioners working in organizations run by men. Today, that situation has not changed dramatically. I believe large agencies are working harder to fill their senior ranks with more women, but the top spots remain a challenge. Perhaps that’s why many like myself took the path of entrepreneurship and we see strong independent agencies led by women winning large accounts and taking home trophies at the myriad award programs.
rbb has been named Agency of the Year four times, and in each case, our culture was a large part of the win. We built our agency around the idea of an “employee driven workplace” where every individual decides how, when and where they work. Offering an environment of respect and flexibility along with an option for equity not only delivers exceptional talent, it keeps them for the long-term. The average tenure at rbb is 8.5 years.
Recently, our gender split has started to shift—from 85 percent female down to 72 percent because we diversified to include advertising and digital, where we typically see more men. So how do we ensure that this culture built by women remains a place that grows its staff regardless of gender? Consider these three pillars:
Make pay parity a reality through transparency
When rbb was founded in 2001, we made it a point to be transparent with salary ranges and raise percentages. rbb’s Career Path is posted on our intranet and every employee sees the salary track for each title and knows what the percentage increase is for each level of performance. Managers see not only their direct reports, but all people of the same title during a group review process so we can avoid the biases that some managers may bring to performance reviews.
Lack of pay parity impacts satisfaction and causes employees to search for employers who will recognize their skills with their wallets. Employers without pay parity will spend more on recruitment and training and reduce the potential effectiveness of current employees.
Offer custom training and mentoring
This is one area that often gets segmented by gender. A female leader should mentor a younger female and somehow teach the “tricks and tactics” that leader used to succeed. While there may be certain issues—like how to keep a career on track before and after a maternity leave—that women may be more comfortable discussing with other women, the key is to identify your high potential women early on and ensure they have support to help them ascend to the upper levels of leadership.
My entrepreneurial role model was a man 20 years my senior who ensured I had challenging work, and helped me imagine next steps outside of my comfort zone. We’ve also seen older employees benefit from reverse mentoring from younger staff. And, training and mentoring isn’t something you always do on your own time. Agencies committed to truly growing their next generation of leaders, give them billable hours to do so.
Create a nurturing vs. toxic culture
People often said they thought rbb’s employee-driven workplace was an outcome of being female-led. I used to argue that point but now I embrace it. Yes, rbb was founded by women who had to juggle work, family and civic/charitable contributions so it makes sense the environment we built would take our lessons learned and apply it to the workplace. Ultimately, we removed the friction that causes many women to drop out or slow down before they reach the top.
We work hard every day to ensure that stays true. I call this rbb’s work/life blend. I don’t think “balance” is the appropriate word anymore because we work on personal time and we do personal things on work time.
My generation is full of “women-firsts,” but we see fewer and fewer of these firsts every year. I like to think the millennial generation is a true turning point for gender equality in the workplace. They can’t imagine a time when a woman could never be CEO and they demand to be treated as individuals. Organizations who cannot adapt to the needs of the next-generation workforce will have difficulty hiring and retaining female staff—and will soon see the impact on the bottom line.