For centuries, women were deprived of financial independence, freedom, and education; denied the opportunity to be active participants in their families’ economic and business affairs, something that is sadly still a reality in parts of the world today. However, the 20th century saw massive changes to our societies and cultures that started to move the dial towards necessary change, and the 21st century has further shifted from voices seeking change to voices demanding and implementing change.
Speaking to the Rockefeller Foundation in July 2019, not long after she was appointed as Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the US, the first woman to hold such a position, H.E. Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud said: “I truly believe that liberty for a woman comes from the ability to make financial decisions for her life.” And today, the growing number of women in leadership roles around the world, from corporate boardrooms to private family offices is testament to this long-established notion, supported by Al Saud, that knowledge, education, and financial independence brings women confidence, security, and the agency to do what they want, and it is with this agency there comes the need to own their messaging, shape their own narrative, and control their own destiny.
The rise of social media in recent years has played a huge role in influencing the sphere of public opinion. This means that we can now hold leaders and organizations to account for their actions, something historically unheard of. Additionally, the drive towards ever increasing transparency and public engagement on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn has played a significant role in the increase in female leadership we see today. However, it also means we are bombarded day in, day out, with propaganda and hearsay, and thought leaders and decision makers can no longer afford to stay under the radar. High net worth individuals and families, companies, and politicians; men, and women alike, increasingly all need to control their own narratives through active reputation management strategies.
As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and more than ever, in today’s world, it is almost guaranteed that if one does not write their own story, someone else will fill that space with their own version. One way female leaders can do this is to implement a coherent and comprehensive communications strategy; consolidating their proactive message around a purpose, but also pre-empting inevitable backlash for daring to speak up and putting themselves out there. It’s vitally important that such potential smears are countered as quickly as possible, or risk “alternative facts,” otherwise known as falsehoods, taking root and becoming insurmountable obstacles that can bring down an established reputation seemingly overnight.
But these voices and their messages, need to be understood before undertaking any proactive public engagement. Despite differences in life experiences and cultures, women around the world share an understanding of the mutual challenges they often face compared to men. Every female CEO or board chair has had to overcome the same obstacles society throws at all women at some point in their careers. It makes sense then, that their narratives and messaging be defined by female communications professionals who have themselves all been there, done that, and got the t-shirt before.
However, the strategic communications industry is dominated by men. Often, when working for C-suite clients, many of whom are likely to be predominantly older men in positions of power and influence, female professionals are overlooked in favor of their male counterparts, regardless of seniority or skillset. One memorable interaction in my own career involved a client dismissing my recommendations, opting to instead ask a male colleague for his opinion, not knowing that I was the one drafting my colleague’s response, which, to no surprise, was the same as my original. Of course, it was then the client decided this was the best course of action to take.
We are all familiar with the dated expression, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” and despite changing societal attitudes over the past few decades, there do remain big differences between the two. The argument to be made here though is that these differences should be welcomed and celebrated, particularly in the workplace. The trials and challenges of the past year have shown just how uncertain times are and, coupled with changes to how we do business, have demonstrated just how invaluable women are to business and industry. Historically feminine attributes such as empathy, open-mindedness, multi-tasking, and willingness to listen and adapt are increasingly in demand, and are often innate skills that most women overlook, but are in fact exactly why they make excellent communicators and incisive leaders.
With that in mind, how then can we expect the continued rise of women in leadership roles who want to own their story, and forge their own path to recognition, awareness, and success, to be best served by communicators who predominately have very different outlooks, perspectives, experiences, and relationships to them and their target audience?
There are of course several reasons why women in leadership roles, both as clients as well as service providers is beneficial, but when it comes to the bottom line, the simple fact remains, that diversity among leadership is better for business.
A report by Harvard Business School conducted in 2018, focused solely on venture capital companies, an industry that is historically male dominated, found that even a 10% increase in the number of female partners resulted in an average 1.5% increase in overall returns year on year as well as 9.7% increase in profitable exits. While this may be just one industry example, there is no doubt that diversity of thought is beneficial. The inclusion of women on corporate boards and at the head of the table in family offices brings new dimensions to corporate culture, decision making, and issues management. These female leaders, investors, and partners need to make their voices heard if they are to effect change on a larger scale.
In November 2020, then US President elect, Joe Biden announced several appointments to his administration, and while it is the most diverse administration in recent history, one element stands out above the rest, and that is, for the first time, the senior leadership of the White House’s communications team consists entirely of women. While women have historically been well represented in traditional PR and communications roles, the appointment of an all-female team in such a high-profile institution, not only presents an important message for female empowerment, which as we have seen, is a key economic driver around the world, but also serves to change attitudes and engagement.
Media coverage around politics, economics, and finance tends to be male dominated. It follows then that if this new White House communications team can alter perceptions and change the way the news is reported and digested, then more female voices taking control over their stories, positioning themselves as thought leaders, opinion shapers, and policy makers will be an incredibly powerful tool to help further disrupt the status quo. We need more women in positions of power, and more women in strategic communications to help them define and tell their story so that society begins to recognize female contributions and opinions that have for so long been considered secondary, as equal.
By Zainab Al-Deen
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