Flexible working — the secret of female leaders in communications?

Thu 21 Apr 2022

Flexible working — the secret of female leaders in communications?

Lisa Ward, director of communication & engagement at NHS (left) and Laurian Hubbard, head of engagement services at Welsh Parliament (right), discuss the challenges, barriers and initiatives paving the way for female leaders in communications

by Murielle Gonzalez

"Communication transcends everything an organisation does, so it is vital to have comms professionals on boards," said Lisa Ward, director of communication & engagement at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, reflecting on the importance of having communications professionals at senior levels in organisations. In conversation with Dods Diversity & Inclusion, she explained that it is not so much about transmitting a message but about doing it compellingly — two core skills in the profession.

Ward is one of the speakers at this year's Women in Communications, part of the Professional Women conference series organised by Dods D&I. Taking place on 28 April in London, the conference has established itself as a platform for discussion about the challenges of modern leadership, providing hands-on advice and coaching on the skills, qualities and attributes needed to be a successful leader.

Men leading a female-dominated sector 

Women in the public relations and communications sector make up two-thirds of the industry, with numbers steadily increasing year-on-year worldwide. However, the latest Global Women in PR Annual Index revealed that boardrooms continue to be dominated by men.

The GWPR Annual Index 2021 compiles research findings from a survey conducted last year by strategic insight agency Opinium. Using an online questionnaire, 430 PR professionals from around the world took part, 61% of them at a director level, and the vast majority (97%) were women. The research found that 66% of board members are men, up 2% from the 2020 report.

Unsurprisingly, 89% of respondents believed that more needs to be done to ensure women in the communications and PR industry have equal presence in the boardroom — 83% agreed that having women in the boardroom helps improve the organisation's outcome, creativity in the workplace, and working practices.

Barriers to women's leadership

Parenting, childcare, or caring responsibilities have been top barriers to women's leadership in communications, as Laurian Hubbard, head of engagement services at Welsh Parliament, said at last year's Women in Communications, pointing out flexible working among the initiatives to get more women into the boardroom.

Findings from the GWPR Annual Index 2021 prove her right, with 73% of respondents likely to choose a job that offered flexible working over one that did not — up 4% compared to the 2020 findings.

"Home and work boundaries have massively blurred during pandemic lockdowns," said Hubbard. "Women prefer the opportunity afforded by remote working, as it gives us a better work-life balance," she added.

Ward agreed. "The bottom line is women want to have a family and taking maternity leave sometimes affects how quickly you might progress [in your career]," she said, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic has been helpful in proving that work can be done remotely — effectively and efficiently. Moreover, she spoke from personal experience.

"My eldest child had quite a lot of issues over the past few years. I've been very fortunate to have employers who completely understood that sometimes I would need to step back and work from home a bit more, or might have to go home early, knowing I would catch up at night or the weekend," she said. Ward explained that, as a senior leader, she would rather judge somebody on what they deliver, how they perform and contribute to the organisation, and not on the hours they work.

Flexibility is not just for parents

"We have to embrace people in terms of what they've got going on in their lives," said Ward, reflecting on how tough the last two years have been on people. "I don't underestimate how many people are struggling with life at the moment. But, that doesn't mean you can't carry on doing your job, and it doesn't mean that you can't progress either," she said.

Ward argued that flexible working is important not only for women with parenting responsibilities. "People can become a bit of an anti-parent in the workplace when they see all the adjustments for them, but we must understand that flexibility is for everyone. There can be many reasons why someone needs flexibility. Increasingly, people will be caring for parents, relatives, or partners," she said. To Ward, flexible working arrangements are becoming a feature of great places to work.

Mindset and skills

Speaking at this year's Women in Communications, Ward will reflect on her career path. However, in conversation with Dods D&I, she revealed: "I've never been one of those people who had a very long-term plan [for my career], but I definitely wanted it to be an executive director post."

She also revealed what was it like to work as a chief press officer in government, attending meetings at No 10 with senior officials in Cabinet Office — and the lessons learned to cut through the male voices, not to mention harassment and improper behaviour.

"When I started work nearly 27 years ago, we put up with a lot more cr*p at work, to be honest, particularly harassment. If you went out for a work drink, you would sometimes get hit on by a colleague, which wasn’t appropriate," she said. She also reflected on how younger generations are perhaps better prepared to confront such situations.

"There's a huge amount of talent coming through, and they are feisty and a bit pushy — not shy about talking about all the issues and barriers to their careers. They would ask for flexibility, have a clear career path and don't put up with inappropriate behaviour — they would call it out quickly, which is admirable, and something I wish I’d had the tools and confidence to deal with when I was younger," Ward said, noting the murder of Sarah Everard last year affected many colleagues.

Will we see gender and leadership equality in the PR and communications industry a reality in the near future thanks to the mindset and skills of the newer generation? Lisa Ward is hopeful that it might be the case because she sees them as a driving force in genuine equality and better behaviour in workplaces.

Women in Communications takes place on 28 April in Central London. Gather your colleagues to discuss together how you can manage the challenges of modern leadership and help ensure we don't lose momentum in recognising and rewarding female leaders in communications. Register to attend.

Some sessions you don't want to miss:

  • Keynote address: Thinking Strategically: Using self-awareness to drive better decision-making
    Caroline Olaiya, head of corporate relations, communications directorate, HM Courts and Tribunals Service
  • Panel discussion: Protecting your mental health and wellbeing in the face of adversity 
    • Natalie Trice, director of public relations, Devon Trice Public Relations
    • Polly Cziok, strategic director, London Borough of Hackney
    • Lisa Ward, director of communications and engagement, Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Keynote address: Leading a Change in Culture: Where do we go from here?
    Kamiqua Pearce, managing director at Coldr, and founder of UK Black Comms Network




Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached at murielle.gonzalez@dodsgroup.com.

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