Public Relations is one of the few famously women-dominated industries. Unfortunately, for many companies, the success of women is still predicated on each woman overcoming odds and overcoming obstacles in environments designed without their consideration. So, how do we measure and celebrate the accomplishments of those who have succeeded while continuing to lead the way for the generation of women behind them?
Hawthorne Strategy Group is proud to be a certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE). We are defined by our impressive women in leadership and our majority-female staff. We sat down with the female leaders at Hawthorne to learn more about their biggest career challenges as women in business and hear the wisdom and insights they have acquired throughout their careers.
Read what Cynthia McCafferty, CEO and President, and Wendi Taylor Nations, Partner, had to share.
Where did your careers start? Was it PR at first sight or did something lead you here?
Wendi Taylor Nations: I started at Rolling Stone magazine, and I definitely thought I wanted to spend my career working for similar organizations. My undergraduate degree was in writing, and at the time, I thought I was going to be a big Rolling Stone writer. I had deep and awful student loans, and my salary at the time was not sustainable. So, I switched to advertising which is actually the baseline of my career in this industry. I got all my account and client services training at the Martin Agency specifically learning how to sell ideas – which is what we do in PR.
Cynthia McCafferty: I never considered PR until I got into PR. I wanted to be a doctor until I had to take chemistry and thought “no, I can’t do that.” I saw a poster in college for the Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG) which is how I got involved in politics. The PIRGs were amazing; by the end of my freshman year, I was sitting on a national board being sent to Washington DC for board meetings. That summer, I went door-to-door raising money for least-cost utility reform to get rid of coal burning power plants. If you think pitching to reporters is hard try knocking on someone’s door while they’re eating dinner and asking for $35.
By the time I graduated, I was working full time for Missourians for Choice and then went on to work for Mel Carnahan and Clinton/Gore. From there, I bounced around from campaign to campaign – I was burned out. Then Fleishman Hillard called to bring me on for an eight-week grassroots campaign. They hired me full-time, and I didn’t leave for 18 years. So, that’s how I got into PR.
So, you both have had really amazing careers, that have moved in a wonderfully unexpected way, but obviously when you were starting out the gender politics were not what they are today. Can you think of one defining moment where you realized your gender was preventing your success in your career?
WTN: Sexual harassment remains an issue. It has not gone away, but when I was starting out it was rampant and accepted. On more than one occasion I have been discriminated against and harassed. So, it has been a pervasive issue throughout my career.
CM: There’s a couple of things that jump out at me. At Fleishman, I had been working in their office for about nine months, but I still had to go through a formal interview process. I went to a woman’s office for an interview – and we are now very good friends and she is a serious feminist, so this shows you what the mentality was like –and she looks at me and says, “You’re the candidate I’m interviewing? I thought you were a secretary.” She had just assumed, because there were so few female candidates, that the next person to come in was going to be a man.
Being the only woman in the room was common and being the youngest woman in the room was common.
WTN: The youngest person.
CM: Yes! And I can’t tell you the number of times where I would be in a meeting and someone would compare me to their daughter. I can’t think of a time where any of my male colleagues got compared to someone’s son. There’s plenty of other things – when I worked for the Democratic Party, I was told to never go to an event alone, It was suggested we use the buddy system and there were also suggestions made on who to be especially careful around
WTN: When I was at Rolling Stone, there was a woman we called “The Den Mother” and once a week she would gather up all the young women and tell us who the predators of the week were. One person who was always on that list was Donald J. Trump.
CM: Have there been improvements, yes, but it hasn’t changed that much.
What are the most positive changes you’ve seen throughout your careers?
WTN: Well I do want to mention that there is something that makes Cynthia and I stand out from most women in our business: Cynthia and I are MBAs.
CM: Well [Account Executive] Jennifer [Wright] will be in the next six months!
WTN: Yes, and that is very, very rare in this business – and it’s good to know that about Jennifer because I think it’s an important credential for our business.
CM: Something that’s positive is that the number of women in senior leadership is dramatically higher, but in parallel, the average salary has gone down. So, while women have taken on more leadership, the industry as a whole is now underpaid. I would give that a “C “on the progress scale. Also, I think the younger men who enter this business aren’t coming in with the same entitlement, which is helpful.
WTN: I will say another positive is that the level of respect I get from clients is irrelevant to gender. They respect me for my counsel above anything else.
PR is a female-dominated industry, what do you think accounts for that?
WTN: I think there are actual opportunities for women – advertising is much more male-dominated and remains so.
CM: I think it’s a couple of things, PR requires a certain amount of intuition and empathy, it requires adaptability – you know as Wendi said, we’re selling ideas. It’s not just pretty pictures, it’s about how we engage and make connections. I think inherently we’re good at it, but that doesn’t mean that every woman is, or that all men aren’t.
What does it mean to you to hold leadership positions at Hawthorne, which has a majority- female staff?
CM: I think it is great, and I am proud of the team and love that we have a majority female staff. I also think it’s important to have gender diversity because it’s important to have a diversity of thinking. In order for us to do our jobs we have to bring a lot of different perspectives to the table. But yes, I’m proud of it.
WTN: I am, too. As a proud Kellogg [School of Management] graduate, I consider myself a servant leader. I am very, very proud of some of the careers I’ve helped foster and support, for both men and women. That’s my legacy. I’m very proud of it and it makes me really excited for the future of our industry.
Finally, what would be your biggest piece of advice for a woman just starting out in this industry?
CM: Don’t hold yourself back. You’re not going to do everything perfectly the first time, but if you don’t try you’ve wasted the opportunity. Don’t hold yourself back because you’re not sure if you’re qualified for that job, don’t hold yourself back if you feel like you need to be treated differently. I would never put someone in a position where I think they’re going to fail, but I would put them in a position where they would have to challenge themselves.
WTN: Mine would be to listen and learn. Every person you encounter has something to teach you. Everyone comes from a different experience. Don’t be biased about gender, race, age – everyone has something to teach you. I try to live every day of my life learning from someone I encounter. That’s not just important to my professional growth but to my growth as a human being.
We are exceptionally lucky to be led by two incredible women with such a breadth of experience. Hawthorne takes seriously their advice, and the women on our staff are excited to continue to make waves in the PR industry under their guidance. Though there are still massive strides to be made for gender equity in any industry, we’re proud to know that for PR some of those strides are being made here.