Female comms execs: Bias isn't barring women with home lives from the C-suite

Making the senior ranks requires sacrifice, panelists said at a Lippe Taylor event.

(L-R) Smirnov, White, Breitstein, Federer, Lippe, Foxman, Susman, Lowney
(L-R) Smirnov, White, Breitstein, Federer, Lippe, Foxman, Susman, Lowney

NEW YORK: The demands of the job, not just bias, are keeping women who value their home life out of the C-suite, said female comms leaders at a Lippe Taylor-sponsored panel discussion in New York.

The Thursday night event, titled "A roundtable for women aspiring to the C-suite," was moderated by former chief digital officer of Bayer Jessica Federer and Lippe Taylor founder and CEO Maureen Lippe.  

The panelists were Pfizer EVP and chief corporate affairs officer Sally Susman, Citi head of corporate communications Jennifer Lowney, Scholastic EVP of corporate communications Stephanie Smirnov, Merck executive director of leadership communications Joanna Breitstein, former SVP and CCO for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Kym White and Pernod Ricard director of external communications and customer success Taylor Foxman.

Lowney had some blunt advice when Lippe asked the women if bias means the C-suite is unavailable to women who want time with their families.

"I'll say something that might be a bit provocative to [answer] that, which is that I don't think it's just bias," she said. "I think that there are real impacts to working from home three days a week. A big part of how I'm able to do my job is based on the relationships that I have internally. Understanding where people stand on specific issues, being able to walk down the hall and have an informal conversation.  And those things come from being present."

She added that there are biases in the system "for sure."

Susman said there is nothing wrong with working flexibly. But the skills needed to operate at the executive level can’t be learned remotely.

"[There are] tradeoffs, you know?" she said. "These are mature tradeoffs that people can make. If you prefer a more flexible schedule and you're prioritizing your home life, that is completely legit. But I believe that if you want to get into the C-suite, you have to prioritize and [be present]."

Much of the work executives do is not "book-learned," but it is learned through the apprenticeship of working with other people," she added.

The panelists also discussed other challenges faced by aspirational women, like how they can find their voice and be heard in largely male-populated board rooms.

Smirnov said she mostly worked with women in her early career. But as that changed she fought to have her voice heard, sometimes a little too eagerly.

"I tended to react a lot when I spoke up as opposed to responding thoughtfully," she said "So when I talk to young women now [or] anyone who's trying to learn how to communicate more effectively in a business environment, no matter what gender is sitting around the table, I [advise them] to listen actively and thoughtfully, and then formulate a response before just reacting so that you can get in and be heard."

The panel also discussed the confidence gap and the bias against women who do speak up for themselves. 

Foxman said her agency background taught her that making a case for yourself is a basic business requirement.

"I was on the media side," she said. "So I was solely based on generating results. My whole career I was continually having to push my successes. And so when I started grooming teams, I forced the girls on my team and the women [to do that]. I said, ‘You need to show what you're doing.’"

When Foxman moved to an in-house role, working mostly with men, she said she started doing the same thing, in a strategic way.

Foxman said women need to know they must be even vocal as they move up the corporate ladder and start working for larger, more successful organizations.

"I find value in that because especially when you work for a big organization, if you don't fight for yourself, no one is going to fight for you," she said.  

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