Wolff Olins is a leading design and branding company that has worked with Uber, TikTok, and Instacart to name just a few. Global CEO, Sairah Ashman, shares her expert view on the progress of gender diversity on the industrial landscape, and explores future strategies for female leaders.
Changing the landscape for women in business
It’s now a shade over 100 years since the 19th Amendment enshrining a woman’s right to vote was ratified nationally in the US. The year was 1920 and my great-grandmother was 10 years old. She was the first woman in my family to vote and made it clear to me at an early age that I had a personal obligation to do so given how many had fought for my right to – an obligation I carry to this day.
45 years later in 1965 a Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the mainstream use of contraception, radically changing the lives of women and altering their role in the workplace. Seven years later in 1973, Roe vs Wade ushered in the right to abortion, giving women ultimate control of their bodies and reproductivity.
My grandmother went on to become the first in my family to attend university and attain a management position, before hitting a very real glass ceiling and retraining to become a teacher, ultimately returning to university to lecture in business studies and gender politics. She had an acute eye for, and first-hand experience of, asymmetrical power imbalances, which she happily schooled me in from the moment I could string a sentence together to the day she passed.
Scroll forward to 2022 and the news that only 44 of Fortune 500 companies were being lead by a female CEO, that’s 8.8 percent. Up from 41 the previous year and a record high, apparently. Meanwhile, a survey by McKinsey and Lean In found that women accounted for only 26 percent of C-Suite managers at the start of 2022, up from 20 percent in 2017. Just five percent of the C-Suite were women of color while 13 percent were men of color. Women in business and the workplace have come a long way, but not nearly far enough.
By 2023 I’d like to think the commercial and social arguments for diversity and for women leading companies is well understood. You don’t need to go far to find them, such as this 2022 Harvard Business Review research article identifying why firms with women in senior positions are more profitable and socially responsible. These benefits go beyond simply hitting diversity targets and doing the right thing. Businesses with more women in senior roles tend to have a lower risk-taking profile and better long-term financial performance, according to a study in the Analysis of Management Journal. And there’s lots of solid evidence beyond business journals that lifting women up in society directly benefits the health and well-being of families, communities and nations, as well as their productivity, from the World Economic Forum.
Returning to leadership, a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review discusses the traits that companies look for in CEOs of the future. Above all, they appear to value social skills or “being good with people” over technical knowledge. While businesses are becoming increasingly driven by technological disruption, corporate success rests on the way companies are run and the strength of relationships between staff – a skill set women are often credited with having a natural affinity for.
So what are the strategies that women should pursue if they want to become top leaders of the future and change the landscape for others to benefit from?
Where you place yourself
The old adage of stopping to ask for directions, only to be told “well I wouldn’t start from here” is a good one. It helps to be clear-sighted about the kind of industry, work environment and situation you’re likely to thrive in as a woman. Asking prospective employers about not just their attitudes but the hard data behind how women are supported and progress within an organization. I’m fortunate to work in an industry and a company that actively supports women into senior positions, but I tried on a lot of other situations before deciding this was a place worth investing in for the long term.
How you invest in yourself
No-one will or should be more motivated than you in developing your skills and investing in your future self. Learn how to make a mutually beneficial business case to enable your employer to invest in you or be prepared to go-it-alone and pay your own way. Several times in my career I’ve taken a step back to take a step forward, taking time out to study for a period or retraining in a role rather than continuing down a prescribed path that I didn’t think was rewarding for me. Aside from attaining technical skills, training alongside others and learning new things instils a level of confidence necessary for all future leaders to perform well.
Who you work alongside
Taking on roles or assignments that bring you into contact with leaders you can learn from is quite possibly one of the most rewarding and enriching ways to grow. Stretch assignments don’t always show up as projects, they often arrive in the form of people and they’re a gift. Irritatingly, it’s often the more challenging leaders and assignments that teach us the most and the sooner you grab them the faster you progress, and the more rounded you become in my experience. It’s also these connections that often go on to open new doors or pave the way to bigger opportunities in ways that are unexpected and appreciated.
How you pace yourself
Life is complicated and you will rarely have the same year twice. It’s seasonal and there will be years where you sow and years when you harvest. It’s important to run your own race and not be afraid to reshape your goals based on where you’re at in your life and the responsibilities you might have acquired or want to. Your route to leadership is likely to be longer and have more turns in it that you might imagine – you’ll be a better leader for it.
About the Expert
Sairah Ashman, the Global CEO at Wolff Olins, oversees the business direction across the company’s offices in New York San Francisco and London. Sairah is passionate about working with ambitious leaders to help their businesses become great brands in world – the kind of radical and category-defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. She is an alumna of Harvard Business School and Goldsmiths University in London, where she completed a Masters in Digital Sociology. She is a founding member and active supporter of The House of St Barnabas, a charity working to break the cycle of homelessness, and a founding committee member of Omniwomen, an initiative aimed at increasing the influence and number of women leaders throughout the Omnicom network. Sairah is a regular TEDx host and speaker, has authored thought leadership and analysis pieces for business publications as well as featuring in FastCo, The Telegraph and has a regular column in Forbes