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The path forward for women in the workforce

Deana R. Haworth, APR
Chief Operating Officer
Hirons
Indiana

TO ACHIEVE EQUAL REPRESENTATION IN THE C-SUITE, WE NEED TO DEVELOP A PIPELINE OF TALENTED FEMALE LEADERS

As the school year winds down and save-the-dates for graduation celebrations start arriving, newly minted graduates across the country are busy looking for that first “real” job. For many, that job introduces them to the professional world and provides opportunities to use their newfound expertise. First jobs also often serve as springboards to bigger and better jobs at bigger and better companies. But virtually no one talks about landing that first real job and then staying with the same company for the rest of their working years.

When I joined Hirons in 2000, it certainly wasn’t my intention or my expectation to invest the next 23 years of my professional life with the firm. I assumed, as most people do, that I’d spend a few years at Hirons, gaining great experience and building a broad network of contacts before climbing to the next rung in my career ladder. 

Twenty-three years later, I’m thrilled and thankful that my early assumption was wrong. Founder Tom Hirons created a firm in which many voices and perspectives were valued, including my own. And in Dr. James Parham, who has been my boss since the day I was hired, I was lucky to discover a mentor and collaborator who gave me plenty of room to grow as a professional and plenty of opportunity to develop as a leader. In July 2018, I became the first woman to fill the chief operating officer role at Hirons. This July, I’ll be the first woman to serve as Hirons’ president and chief executive officer. 

I’ve worked very hard to arrive at this point. But as any professional woman can tell you, it’s taken more than hard work to get here. I’ve had the good fortune to work for male bosses who nurtured my leadership skills and aspirations rather than squelching them. It’s been the motivating factor in my choice to stay with the firm all these years. It’s also been the motivating factor behind my commitment to support and mentor other professional women throughout my entire career.

 

At 50.5% of the U.S. population, women are not a minority. As consumers, we make or influence 80% of purchases and represent 91% of new homebuyers. We control almost $11 trillion in financial assets. And in January of this year, we officially became 10% of all Fortune 500 CEOs.

You may want to read that again. Women make or significantly influence 80% of all consumer purchases in the United States but comprise just 10% of the CEOs at the country’s largest companies — many of which develop and manufacture the products we buy. In an unintentional but nevertheless perfect example of “damning with faint praise,” Jane Stevenson, global leader for the CEO succession practice at consulting firm Korn Ferry, remarked when the news broke that, “Women as CEOs isn’t an oddity anymore.”

It’s impossible to look at a gulf that wide — 10% of CEOs vs. 80% of purchasing power — without acknowledging the intentionality. It becomes even more apparent when you consider that researchers at Harvard have shown that firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences. Research also shows that women-led startups receive significantly less early-stage capital (an average of $1 million less) than those led by men but ultimately deliver more than twice as much revenue per dollar invested, making women-owned companies much better investments for financial backers. Women CEOs are also more active champions of diversity, equity and inclusion than their male counterparts, and the companies they run are more likely to be focused on making a social contribution and building strong relationships with employees.


Similar to racial disparities, the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate, nonprofit and government settings isn’t random. It’s based on a system of exclusion that was intentionally built and sustained over time but that is steadily being dismantled. To expedite that process, we need a pipeline of women from all backgrounds and disciplines ready to take on leadership roles.


This is what makes the work of mentorship so critical. It makes little difference whether doors to the executive suite are opening to women if there aren’t enough women prepared to walk through them — or rather, if there aren’t enough women who feel prepared to walk through them. 

I was fortunate enough to feel prepared for the C-suite because of the women who helped shape me as a professional. Rose Durbin, our longtime vice president of media, and Ann Kneifel, our retired CFO and current board member, served as excellent role models, nurtured my strengths and taught me how to navigate sometimes precarious professional waters. Jodi Perras, one of the top communications professionals in Indiana, gave me an opportunity early in my career and really pushed me to understand true and genuine community engagement. Marilyn Weaver, the formidable chair of the Department of Journalism at Ball State University, showed me that one can rule with an iron fist while still showing compassion. Together, these women empowered me to push boundaries and attain the responsibilities I sought.  

By now, we’ve all heard some variation of the statistic, based on an internal Hewlett-Packard survey, that men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of requirements in the job description, while women tend to apply only when they meet 100% of requirements. Further research confirmed that self-confidence isn’t what holds women back from applying for jobs where they don’t meet every qualification; rather, the belief that their application will be dismissed is what keeps women from pursuing these opportunities. 

Bottom line? It’s important that women not only be prepared to pursue C-suite jobs but also feel comfortable putting themselves forward. Mentoring — both formal and informal — from other women executives and leaders is an important strategy for achieving both objectives. 

Early in my career, the near-complete absence of women in leadership positions caught my attention. As a first-generation college graduate, I knew very well how challenging it can be to chart your own course without a personal role model to show the way. I also knew I didn’t want to wait until I became a CEO to lend a hand to women beside or behind me on the corporate ladder. 

Instead, I made a concerted effort to notice and name the talent I saw in other women. It’s a simple but surprisingly effective way to help someone identify their own value, when done with intention. This means going beyond the standard “attaboy/girl” recognition on a job well done, although that practice also holds value. To “notice and name” someone’s talent is to speak to them explicitly about the capabilities you observe, e.g., “I notice every event you plan comes in on budget; you seem to have a talent for finance.” The next step is to begin pairing talent with opportunity, e.g., “the accounts you manage garner a lot of earned media coverage; would you be willing to put together a workshop for the rest of your department?”


Often, pairing talent with opportunity means being willing to manage your employees out of your firm and into other companies or roles. This became a big part of the informal mentoring I did as my own career progressed. In a tight labor market, this can be a painful aspect of true mentorship.


No one likes it when a great employee leaves. But for women to achieve equal representation at the CEO level — or even reach critical mass — we can’t stay huddled together in a handful of companies. True mentorship is about what’s in the best interest of your mentee, even when it directly contradicts your own.

As I took on new roles and responsibilities at Hirons over the years, my ability to create formal mentoring opportunities grew tremendously. Hirons joined and eventually sponsored organizations like the National Association of Women Business Owners and the Indy Chamber Women in Business initiative. In fact, Hirons is the proud title sponsor for the entire Indy Chamber Women in Business series of events in 2023. 

Our multiple internship programs and Hirons’ Be Bold Mentorship Program allow other Hirons staff to experience the rewards of mentoring while expanding the circle of those who benefit. Like many industries in the Midwest, the field of communications lacks diversity. Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of working closely with Amos Brown, the communications veteran and community activist, on the Indianapolis Complete Count Committee for the U.S. Census. The friendship we built led me to a much deeper appreciation of the real deficiency shared by our closely aligned industries: a workforce that, in racial and ethnic terms, did not reflect the population of the surrounding community. 


While a diverse workforce is important in every field, it’s particularly so for all disciplines under the communications umbrella. If authenticity and empathy are the key building blocks for successful communication, as I believe they are, then those crafting the messages should be at least as diverse as those receiving them. To be successful with public outreach, education and purpose-driven communications, we must first ensure the leaders of such efforts represent the true diversity of communities we’re seeking to impact.


Like many, I was heartbroken when Amos passed in 2015. Understanding how much he wanted his legacy to inspire progress and meaningful change, I led a successful effort in partnership with The Indianapolis Recorder, Radio One and Amos’ family to create an internship at Hirons in his honor. The program is designed to create pathways for students of diverse backgrounds to become communications leaders. 

Offered every summer, the Amos Brown Internship encourages students of color to seek careers in communications and bolsters our minority recruitment efforts. Applicants must be a current junior, senior, master’s student or recent graduate in good academic standing, with priority given to students of color. Once finished with the program, interns act as ambassadors for the program and serve as mentors to future Amos Brown interns.

Hirons’ Be Bold Mentorship Program is designed to establish strong working relationships between entry- and mid-level employees and other team members. The goal is to increase employee satisfaction and long-term retention while giving newer employees confidence that they have an ally within the agency. It’s immensely gratifying to have so many women at Hirons now mentoring other young women and supporting them in their own journey toward leadership. 

This is how a pipeline of talented women who are prepared — and feel prepared — to walk through those C-suite doors is built. Women mentoring women doesn’t have to be complicated nor costly. All it requires is a commitment to acknowledge and support the best in each other. 

Chief Operating Officer at Hirons

Deana began her career as a public relations specialist at Hirons 23 years ago and immediately assumed an upward trajectory, serving in various account leadership roles. She currently serves as the first female chief operating officer in the agency’s 44-year history.

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