Owning your space: the power of female leaders is reshaping the industry

Since I was young, I’ve been interested in every form of creative expression and communications. Thanks to my parents, I had the opportunity to try many new things as a child and soon I realized I could learn anything if I put my heart to it, taught myself to push for what I want, and learned to get over fears. Most importantly, when things didn’t go my way, I learnt with their encouragement, to always get back up and face another day. It wasn’t about pass or fail, win or lose, it was about owning my own success and doing everything I could do to be my best.

Today as a mother of three boys, an executive leader in an agency across Greater China and the global lead of Jack Morton’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, I continue to practice perseverance and am passionate about the continued quest to try new things and I never let the fear of losing get to me.

Even with all these life lessons, I, have stumbled and felt lost. When I had my first child, and even my second, I experienced the same self-doubt many mothers-to-be have - constantly asking myself “Will they give someone else that cool opportunity if I take four months of maternity leave? Will I be able to juggle life between work and home? Will I be able to progress in my career with a child?”. By the time I was pregnant with my third child, I had gained more confidence and self-belief to not worry about this.

How wonderful would it be if we could set aside those doubts earlier, enable women to feel strong and have that self-belief in their careers? In fact, inequalities and discriminations don’t just occur in the workplace, it’s everywhere. Often male leaders are put under the spotlight for their perceived lack of support for working mothers and are sometimes portrayed as less understanding and empathetic compared to their female counterparts. But I’ve come across some very genuine and caring male leaders who I trust and who I know actively support their female counterparts and staff. On the other hand, I’ve seen many instances where female leaders were more critical of working mothers, and less accepting of the challenges working mothers face on a daily basis. Stereotypes hold us back and as leaders, we need to start looking at the situation in a more human and compassionate way.

We work in a challenging industry - always-on, highly competitive and deeply stressful. On the plus side, it’s insanely creative and very rewarding but that’s not what my kids think when I am “always last to pick them up from school” or when they assume (usually correctly) that I won’t be able to come to their assembly because “mum will be at work or travelling”. It’s a gut punch whenever I hear them say it.

What does this say about the industry?

We’re making great progress, but we’re clearly not done. I can’t help but think if this can happen to me, how many great female leaders out there also feel the same way?

The demands of being a female leader in this day and age are real and won’t go away. But we can be more understanding, more flexible, and be better role models. Nowadays, I make no apologies for having kids around. If I’m working during ‘off-hours’, I will let them know they can come in and give me a kiss goodnight when I’m on a call. Some people say, in your position, it’s ok for you to do this, but I would argue that the norms have changed and the conversations around work-life integrations are changing. As leaders, it’s about showing, by example, that it’s ok to do this.

Together, we can all reshape the industry and continue to make it more welcoming for female leaders.

Mentoring matters.

I craved advice and still do. There are many of us who have lived through being a pregnant mum, a working parent, a partner who travels often. Share your tips, pass on your knowledge and experiences, share an observation, help to establish a culture that’s not just OK with feedback but one that thrives on it.

Flexible working arrangements.

Our work and home life are inextricably linked, work towards a solution that fits the individual, the team, the client and the business.

Back to work policies for parents.

The hardest time for me was coming back to work after having children. And I had three of them. Support networks, some flexibility, a buddy to help you navigate – new parents would welcome any of it.

I don’t have regrets but I wish I had owned my time more. I wish I was not so apologetic to end a meeting early in order to attend my kids’ performances at school, I wish I’d rescheduled meetings to be more present with my family, and not felt as guilty taking the maternity leave that I did. As a leader, I’m on a mission to create a safe and supportive workplace for our people to allow them to attend to their priorities whether that’s family or outside interests while still being able to excel in their careers and bring their authentic selves to work.

I find myself saying ‘do what’s right’ a lot. Whether that’s temporarily converting a meeting room into a nursing room (that was a while ago, we have a lovely mother’s room now) or allowing a colleague to bring their children to work when they don’t have childcare. It’s about being considerate, respectful, responsive and encouraging. Small actions make a huge impact and it starts with us.

Natalie Ackerman is EVP of Greater China and global lead of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council at Jack Morton Worldwide.

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