Lean in, make your path, and guide others
Guest Q&A with Mary Beth Denomy, Chair of Free For All Marketing
I’ve come to realize that I live in a bit of a bubble, but a very good one. In a couple of months, I’ll be celebrating my tenth (!) anniversary at Environics Communications. In the marketing world, that’s a lifetime, and people often ask me why I stay. I stay because I am surrounded by smart, inspiring, creative people I respect – of both genders – and, as I have recently come to realize, I also work in a (sadly) somewhat-unique environment where I’m never denied a seat at the table because I’m a woman, or a mother.
I also get to work down the hall from award-winning industry veterans like Mary Beth Denomy, who has been named on too many “Top 100 Female Entrepreneur” lists to name here. With the recent passing of Mary Tyler Moore, ongoing public commentary towards Hillary Clinton, and the release of a brand new study from the Environics Institute on Global Attitudes towards Women in Leadership, I was inspired to sit down with Denomy to pick her brain on the challenges women in leadership positions face, and – perhaps more importantly – how women can help each other find their path to success.
Why don’t more women aspire for leadership roles?
It’s difficult for women to aspire to leadership roles when the path to them isn’t clear. If you’re a man, you see yourself reflected in senior leaders everywhere, and you can model your approach. As a woman, those examples aren’t as readily available, and if we don’t see a path, it’s very difficult to believe that one exists. I’m reminded of an entrepreneurial networking group I joined years ago: I didn’t feel justified in joining until I had accomplished a lot. At our first meeting, none of the men in attendance had achieved what I had – I don’t say this to mock or disparage their accomplishments in any way, but rather to illustrate that I had held myself back from joining, and perhaps I could have done so years earlier. Men aren’t shy about championing their accomplishments, but women are still holding themselves back. I did.
Do women face different leadership challenges and obstacles than men?
Sometimes women have to fight harder than men for a seat at the table, and once they’re there, they need to remember to speak up to be heard. People naturally assume that when a man is in a meeting, it’s because he should be there. He doesn’t need to say anything to convince people. It isn’t necessarily the same for women. When a woman walks into a meeting, there are so many factors at play – people are looking at how she carries herself, what she looks like, what she’s wearing, how her hair is styled. It’s minor, but it influences the way people view her. Assumptions are made, and if as women we don’t actively participate in meetings and control our narrative, the others in the room can fill it in for us.
How do we help women step up and achieve their full potential?
Female leaders have the opportunity to show their path to the women who are coming up behind them. I think of the career opportunities that were available to my mother versus myself, and it’s astonishing – in one generation a lot has changed for the better, but it’s important to remember that not every woman’s path is the same. Men have different paths, so why would it be any different for us? I look at strong leaders like Jan Kestle, founder of Environics Analytics, or Lisa Barrans, my successor as President of Free for All Marketing, and our stories aren’t the same. Their lives don’t look exactly like mine. But they’re great at what they do, and they are an example to younger women that regardless of whether or not you’re married or have kids, hard-working, smart women have just as much a right to be a leader as a man does. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the privilege of working in an organization that promotes and encourages women in senior leadership roles. Bruce has been a wonderfully supportive mentor throughout my career, which has been such a gift. I hope to pay that forward.