-Josephine Bertrams, US CCO, Heineken
-Jano Cabrera, CCO, General Mills
-Paula Davis, CCO, Colgate-Palmolive
-Tina McCorkindale, president, IPR
-Susan Nelson, SVP and CCO, Dine Brands Global
-Andrea Pellicciari, EVP, Red Havas
-Kim Sample, president, PR Council
The pandemic caused many employers to rethink how they support women's unique health and well-being needs through better policies, benefits and culture. This roundtable features seven top executives in the sector eager to discuss what that looks like from their perspectives.
It didn’t take long for COVID-19 to enter the conversation. And it certainly makes sense, as most agree that the pandemic created greater awareness around the importance of offering mental health support.
Tina McCorkindale, IPR president, cites a survey that reveals more than 50% of women feel burned out, while a third have poor mental health.
“This is a significant issue in organizations,” she notes. “There’s already evidence that women are leaving the workforce – and this is disproportionately true for women of color.” (Concerns related to women of color are brought up repeatedly during this conversation.)
To that end, while mental health assistance was brought to the fore during the pandemic, Paula Davis, CCO at Colgate-Palmolive, has also seen a growing awareness of the importance of inclusion and flexibility at her company.
“Flexibility means different things to different people,” she asserts. It can mean giving employees the ability to work remotely or to feel comfortable asking for time to care for children or elderly parents.
Bolstering the benefits
The gathered experts agree that while enriching benefits is a great start, companies must create a workplace environment that fully supports those benefits and employees’ ability to use them.
McCorkindale highlights different research revealing that for many women, the reduced commute time that has been facilitated by fully remote or hybrid work arrangements has been replaced by more time working.
“Two years after COVID,” she laments, “women still have fewer resources to do their jobs, but more responsibilities.”
“You can have all the benefits in the world, but it won’t work if there's not a culture of understanding,” says Josephine Bertrams, US CCO at Heineken.
Practicing what they preach, Heineken has taken some unique steps and stances to promote a fully welcoming environment.
One of the more famous scenes to have arisen during the pandemic are of video chats being joined by children and/or pets in the background (and sometimes front and center). While some managers groan and frown about this, Heineken very much encourages these young and four-legged guests to join meetings.
This sentiment is very much in line with Bertrams’ belief that companies need to adopt “more care and understanding, since empathy is necessary for a supportive culture.”
Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left): Bertrams, Cabrera, Davis, McCorkindale, Sample, Pellicciari and Nelson
Listen, you’ll learn
Part of adopting a more supportive culture is the ability to listen to what female employees need.
“To give women more workforce control, we have to listen a lot and continue to learn,” notes Susan Nelson, SVP and CCO at Dine Brands Global. She reports that Dine has formalized this by launching an employee-led team member resource group across the organization to examine policies and practices and offer recommendations or enhancements to the leadership team.
“We've learned it's not just about leadership making decisions,” she adds. “Team members should have a voice in what’s right for them.”
An empathetic culture, all participants concur, is also one in which employees are encouraged to be transparent about non-workplace responsibilities they need to address.
“Everyone has the support to take the time they need,” emphasizes Andrea Pellicciari, EVP at Red Havas. “If I have to take my daughter to a doctor’s appointment, everyone knows where I’m going and no one has an issue. We cover for each other as much as we can.”
And keeping it “in the family,” Pellicciari also highlights a unique quality that only female leaders can bring to bear.
“My mom-at-home role feeds a little bit into my mom-at-work role,” she shares. And while she sometimes questions if that’s good or not, the rest of the roundtable feels that can only be viewed as a positive if the objective is a nurturing culture.
Burden of being boss
The conversation was set to turn to the gains that have been made pertaining to women and the most senior-level roles at agencies. However, before that could start, the point is raised that women – for all their progress – are still carrying most of the burden when it comes to domestic duties.
And it was the sole male leader at the roundtable who raises this point most loudly.
“The reality is that the life journey for men and women is different for a number of reasons,” explains Jano Cabrera, CCO at General Mills. “On the domestic front, work is not distributed evenly and the glass ceiling is sometimes there because people make ill-informed presumptions about women.”
Policies on family leave need to be evaluated to encourage inclusiveness and keep more women in the workplace. Doing so is a win for both employees and employers. Bertrams cites research that found inclusive and diverse organizations are more profitable, innovative and productive.
All that said, there has been notable progress toward breaking through the “glass ceiling.” Among the top 30 agencies in PRWeek’s 2023 Agency Business Report, a solid number now have female CEOs.
And on the in-house side, female CCOs certainly can be found, including at brands that have been traditionally male-dominated. Bertrams herself is proof of that, as is the leader into whom she reports.
“Heineken USA has the first female CEO of a brewer in the US,” notes Bertrams. “We're very proud of that.”
There are more signs. Davis attended The Seminar this year and reports that “the ecosystem was increasingly female.” Women represented at least half the CCOs in the room and half of the organizers of the conference.
While it’s important to encourage more women to aspire to the C-suite, the industry also needs to focus on creating policies that help retain mid-level managers and normalize the experience of those staffers whose main motivation is a good career-family balance.
“The industry needs to better recognize the value brought by mid-level managers – whether they aspire for more or not,” says Pellicciari. “They are the absolute core of an agency or in-house team.”
Issues that need more attention
The lack of attention to women’s lifecycles in an industry in which 70% of the workforce is female truly frustrates our gathered leaders.
“One of the things that we don't talk about as leaders is the impact of menopause on the work that that we do,” points out McCorkindale. “It’s under-studied and under-discussed.”
Kim Sample, PR Council president, agrees, while also voicing concern about ageism, which impacts women disproportionately.
She notes that while older men often go on to corporate consulting or academic roles when their agency or in-house leadership roles conclude, the fact that only a tiny sample of women do so is shocking.
Panelists enthusiastically advocate for the creation of more opportunities for women of color in the industry, while also championing efforts to reach out to women – and all people of color – at an early age to educate them about the profession.
“Representation matters so much,” says Bertrams. “We have to broaden our horizons when it comes to recruiting talent.”
Sample might have some good news toward that goal. She shares research the PR Council conducted on how professionals in adjacent sectors felt about a career in communications. The responses, she reports, were overwhelmingly positive – not something likely to have been said even just a few years ago.
“The number-one thing that is compelling about our industry,” concludes Sample, “is the opportunity to be in a creative workplace and be part of a creative team.”