Women in Communications: Can We Have it All?

International Women’s Day (IWD) was March 8, 2013, and it provided a good opportunity for both men and women to take a look at the current state of women’s progress around the world. While IWD calls for an examination and appreciation of all aspects of womanhood, women’s roles in the career force took a front seat.

In the U.S. communications industry, women outnumber men by a 60:40 ratio—and this trend has been on the rise for years. However, men still outnumber women in the executive boardroom. According to the 2012 Catalyst Census’ “Fortune 500 Women Board Directors” and “Fortune 500 Executive Officers and Top Earners” reports, women served in 16.6% of board member positions in 2012—this is the seventh consecutive year of no growth. Women also only held 14.3% of Executive Officer positions—a zero percent growth for the third straight year. And if this is not alarming enough, the report found that women held an underwhelming 8.1% of top earner slots. (Read more on these statistics at Women on Business.)

Infographic by Caitlin New @ Ketner Group

As I advance in both age and experience, I wonder why this is still a disappointing reality. Is it because men have more advancement opportunities? Is it because they work longer or harder? Do they possess more leadership talent than women? Is it because women have a lot more distance to cover because we started from so far behind? Or is it because women with families bear an unequal level of responsibility and/or prejudice when it comes to balancing work and family? Do we do it to ourselves, as this CNN article about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” philosophy suggests, a result of our own choices?

According to a report by the National Partnership for Women & Wage Families, women with children are paid 2.5% less than women without children, while men with children are paid 2.1% more than men without children. This is a confusing disconnect.

Curious about the work/family balance issues women face, I asked several women who hold leadership and managerial roles in the communications industry about their experiences in maintaining a successful career while performing the work/family-balancing act. Completely aside from the arguments of gender pay gaps and stay-at-home parenting vs. full-time workforce parenting, I learned about the challenges these women experience in making decisions about career and family.

“Today, most of my male co-workers have working wives and are more understanding and may have more responsibility themselves as a result,” said Stefanie Nelson, a technology industry professional. Nelson admits to having the fortunate ability to continue working full-time after starting her family, as her husband took some time off of work to be a stay-at-home dad. “The biggest challenge for me was letting him do it!” Nelson said. “I think a lot of women have not only a sense of obligation, but also a need to control certain things, and it can be hard to let go.”

On staying competitive at work, Nelson believes her “biggest challenge at the professional level hasn’t been dealing with the additional responsibilities as much as the perception that women don’t have the same dedication to their career as men,” she said.

Vanessa McMillan, a marketing specialist in the technology industry, believes that women carry more personal responsibility when it comes to balancing work and family. McMillan also feels men are given more opportunities to advance. “I think that men naturally are advanced in the organization, held in high regard and paid heed to more often than a woman—whether she is a working mom or not.”

Brittany Jedrzejewski, a communications technology professional, views women and men on equal ground as it relates to job responsibilities in the marketing communications industry. “However, in senior leadership roles, there are more men and I think that’s an indicator of how women are and have been viewed for a long time—that men are more adept at high level positions because they don’t have as much to balance,” said Jedrzejewski.

Jedrzejewski left her 65-hour workweek as a manager to work part-time. She is no longer considered for promotions and is not included in management meetings, but for Jedrzejewski, it’s a tradeoff she both accepts and appreciates. “Travelling was the biggest thing I wanted to give up because it took away from my time at home with the kids. I work hard and really enjoy a balance.”

As a communications professional interested in starting a family while continuing to advance in my public relations career, I asked these women to share their best advice.

“Remember what’s important. Man or woman, that answer should always be your family,” said Nelson. “Working harder, longer hours to get a raise or promotion is likely what you’ve been taught you’re supposed to do, but it’s not always the right answer.” Nelson advises us to remember why we want it all. “Careers are supposed to be fulfilling, give us a greater sense of purpose, challenge us, and make us excited to get up in the morning. If your career isn’t doing that for you and you find that your family (and possibly even your health) is suffering as a result, don’t be afraid to re-think priorities and readjust your strategy.”

McMillan advises women to choose a more established company when choosing a long-term employer. “Work for a company that has a strong work/life balance. Do not work for a start-up!”

Jedrzejewski encourages women to put your boss in the interview seat. “Find a career and environment that you really enjoy. Interview your boss—they determine your work/life balance and you want someone who empowers you, trusts you and isn’t afraid to fight for you.” Jedrzejewski recommends establishing your balance early, such as setting your in-office work hours and work-from-home day(s).

I’ll end this blog with an interesting story I heard from a friend who learned I was writing this blog post. She has a friend whose boss actually accused her of taking time off work during the day to go see her kids at school when she was, in fact, out of the office because she was traveling on business. Because she’s a mom, and because her kids’ school was down the street, he assumed that was where she must have been if she wasn’t at her desk.

Unfortunately, based on other blogs and articles I’ve read on the subject, this isn’t an isolated event. If this isn’t indicative of a problem, then what is it?