The work-life fit approach to gender parity

Possible's Hiefield discusses the importance of setting new standards in the industry.

There is an old saying, "Behind every successful man is a strong woman." Obviously (or at least we hope) that’s gone out of fashion. Instead, I’d like to flip it around and say, "Behind every successful woman is an even stronger partner."

Today, we’re trying hard to change the advertising industry to be more reflective of all people. We know we need more women in leadership positions, but it has not been easy getting there. We understand the problem, but even though we’re actively trying to address it, progress has been slow.

In a recent article, Nancy Hill argued that the crux of the issue is two-fold: 1) the lack of female representation (and thus role models) at the executive levels and 2) the sheer number of women at lower levels who never make it to the executive level. She quoted Kristen Cavallo, CEO of The Martin Agency, saying "Gender discrimination isn't an HR issue. It's a cultural issue. And the fastest way to change a culture is to level the playing field in leadership."

That’s a good start, yet I don’t know if it’s the full answer. The problem is more multidimensional than this. Nelson Freitas, for example, argues that part of the problem is that the favored leadership style—cold, quiet, decisive—is at odds with the strengths of more intuitive and compassionate leaders. To his mind, a lot of people (including many women) opt out of leadership roles, because the expected personality is not their own.

Another overlooked aspect is the job itself. Being an executive makes heavy demands on your life. Our time is taken up with days of meetings and travel. We frequently spend more time away than we do home. This isn’t merely something that impacts us as parents, but in the rest of life as well.

In addition to the usual requirements for the job, executives need someone who can put out the garbage, feed the dog, and take the kids to softball practice if we get called away. This isn’t merely about children, but all aspects of life. Without a strong support network—be that a spouse, family, or friends—it’s hard to make it work.

And that, sadly, turns out to be easier for men than women to find. As my husband puts it: "It’s a selfishness thing. Where are the men taking one for the team and supporting a vision or dream for their spouse or partner?"

I’ve been lucky in this way with my partner. It's not that my husband has put everything on hold. He’s had a successful broadcast career too. But we’ve both agreed to make trade-offs so that we can focus on our collective career stages, raise a daughter, be involved in our community, and work toward our family goals. It's not always been easy, but having someone who can pick up the life slack is nearly as vital to success as anything else.

My outcome would likely not have been the same if he were not as supportive—or if I hadn’t had someone else to fill the void at times. What if I was always the one who had to stay home with a sick kid? What if I couldn’t stay late or fly to see a client on a Wednesday afternoon?

While we’ve been lucky in this, we know that our situation is far from universal. We were also raised in traditional American families, and we’ve had pressure put on us to be more conformist at times. My guess is that this happens to a lot of people. My husband, for example, has told me he had at least three men tell him that they didn't feel like a man if they don't make money for their families.

Really? Has society put that pressure on them or did they themselves? This has to change. Besides loads of therapy, we need to start thinking about shifting the home and the workplace to create flexible environments that allows for level playing and practical sharing of responsibilities. It has to be a partnership.

This problem is obviously twofold. There’s a broad cultural issue where the advertising industry can educate and advocate. But within the industry, we can also look for ways to improve. We need to create an environment where people can do their best work and the flexibility needed to live life. It's not work/life balance. That implies an even balance or split of time. I like to refer to it as work/life fit. There are always going to be times you need to lean into work and times you need to lean into life or family. We need to create workplaces that allow for that.

In other words, diversity isn't merely an issue for a Chief Diversity Officer or a CEO, it’s a challenge for the entire organization that starts with the leadership and needs to be built from the inside out. This takes time. We've been supporting The 3% Movement for over five years and have seen our creative leadership move from 15% to 35% and our leadership team from 25% to 38%. We have established goals for our leadership team at each location and best practices for how we operate, which is creating change. But even so, we have more work to do to get to gender parity across our regional leadership team.

We all need to start talking about this. In my own experience I can think of multiple times in my career where I had to outperform and ask for what I wanted or needed. It wasn't easy, and at times, uncomfortable. However, I'm also grateful for having several men and women, who listened, advised and sponsored me through the challenges. Here’s to setting new standards, defining new ways of working that bring flexibility to all, and building stronger partnerships at home and work.

Martha Hiefield is the CEO of Americas at Possible.

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