I had the opportunity last week to participate in an inspiring discussion with some of the top women PR leaders in Minnesota when Beehive hosted Minnesota’s inaugural SHEQUALITY Project dinner. Sponsored by PR Council, the SHEQUALITY initiative focuses on women helping women achieve equality in the top positions at PR firms of all sizes.   As an engaged and active feminist, I jumped at the chance to listen as eight women executives from five Minnesota PR Council member firms came together to discuss their experiences, observations and ideas for helping women rise and lead in our industry.   Our reason for gathering can be summed up by one disappointing statistic: women are 70% of the PR agency workforce but hold just 30% of the top positions (PR Council). I listened and took notes as these accomplished leaders, each with more than 20 years in the industry, shared their insights and ways their firms are and can do more to push the numbers in a positive direction. Below are my biggest takeaways from the evening:  

The benefits of leadership need a rebrand.

Multiple studies show a positive correlation between the number of women in leadership and company performance. However, companies are failing to attract women to top positions. An idea shared around the table was reframing the conversation to highlight why leadership is good for women. High-achieving women are generally motivated differently than their male counterparts – status, power and reward aren’t strong motivators for many women (Harvard Business Review). Instead, a sense of purpose and positive impact on community were found to be stronger motivators for more than two-thirds of female CEOs. Companies should place a stronger emphasis on these benefits to appeal to women. This could also be an important factor in attracting millennials of all genders to execut­­­ive positions.  

Male advocates are key to helping women rise.

The group discussed the effectiveness of women amplifying each other’s voices, as well as the need for male colleagues to advocate for women in leadership. Since men account for an overwhelming percent of top executive positions, their involvement in this discussion is crucial to progress. One reason men don’t engage in gender parity discussions is a lack of psychological standing — a belief they don’t have a place in the conversation. Organizations must help all employees — regardless of gender — understand their stake in the issue. This is how companies can increase the number of engaged male sponsors. According to research on female CEOs published recently in Harvard Business Review, an absence of sponsorship acts as a hindrance to women’s career development. One opportunity for action established in our discussion was intentionally focusing on leadership development earlier in women’s careers to help illuminate the path to executive positions.  

The approach to change must be intersectional.

I was encouraged by the many times the conversation focused on the importance of intersectionality, including race, religion, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. According to St. Catherine University’s 2016 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, only 3.4% of Minnesota directors are women of color, compared to 15.7% for white women. As this initiative continues to set goals and create actionable steps forward, it will be critical to include diverse voices as we discuss the different and additional barriers women of color face. Similar to the positive correlation between business performance and women in leadership, companies with ethnic and racial diversity in management are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean.   After a full three hours of engaging discussion, two things were clear: this group is just getting started, and these women leaders are committed to addressing the equality issue in Minnesota. Lack of women in leadership is a symptom of a larger problem that requires complex and challenging work to be done, but starting the conversation together is a step in the right direction.   Thank you to the following PR Council members for participating and for their commitment to continuing this important conversation.