Young women in comms; we *do* know what they want

A summary of our session at Social Media Week London 2015

This morning I moderated a panel for Social Media Week entitled 'Young Women in Comms; do we really know what they want?'

The organisers of this year's conference reached out to me after I'd tweeted my SXSW wrap-up piece back in March. I'd noted that while the increase of female representation in Austin was positive, it was largely a senior set of leaders (both women and men) talking about junior females' experiences on their behalf. Wouldn't it be great to see more young women speak for themselves?

So that's exactly what we did today. After an open call for panellists to join me, I sat beside Gemma Milne (Creative Technologist at Ogilvy Labs), Ruman Hasan (Marketing Assistant at Halal Gems), Lisa Flechsig (Junior Strategist at Joule) and Patricia Erdei (User Experience Analyst at Cisco). Collectively they have roughly 5.5 years of industry experience between them, so are just beginning their careers.

We'd met beforehand so were able to drive straight into the discussion about their experiences of gender and any professional challenges. 

My first question was a tough one; I referenced an International Women's Day event I'd attended earlier this year, where Bloomberg’s Olivia Solon asked a panel on stage if they could think of an example of where they’d been limited or held back by their gender. Just as the panel did then, none of the young women this morning could come up with a clear example of either (they'd been sent the questions ahead of time, so it wasn't just that they were just put on the spot).

Is this because they're just starting out? Perhaps. But I’d asked this specifically to make the point that when you're faced with 'gender discrimination' as an issue - you often just dismiss it, since you don't view things in that way. Often this is down to state of mind, and (as was deftly pointed out by a member of the audience later on), you become immune or brush off the everyday examples that still take place. Being asked to make sure the 'tech guy' was in the room for a meeting is an ideal example, which happened to one of the panel. Surely that's discriminative? Yes, but she didn’t perceive it to be 'limiting', even though the woman in question said that it made her question the validity of her being the 'tech guy' in the room. It's a really interesting interpretation of what has lasting impact, and what doesn't.

Because of the nature of this discussion; we were bound to get more confident young women volunteering for the session. But still, the same trends that we assume affect the younger generation still cropped up; a fear of not knowing whether what they're doing job-wise is really right, of making mistakes in the advice they give, of not letting people down. These are likely to be felt more generally by most young people, but as Sheryl Sandberg touts in Lean In, referencing an internal HP report; women will only put themselves forward for a job if they feel they have 100% of capabilities required, while men will go for something if they feel they meet 60% of requirements. 

That said; what was MOST apparent was the drive and ambition of the women alongside me. There is such opportunity for employers to capitalise on this, across the board, and the ringing takeout was that agencies and brands can snare great female talent through solid career advice, training programmes, mentoring (which must be two-way, as we discussed on the panel) and then the flexibility to move through a company as is appropriate to the individual, rather than what they ‘should’ or shouldn't do, or even what it says on their CV necessarily, but how capable they are of taking on a role.

My final thought on this. In the words of Gemma; while it's great to talk about diversity, let's focus more so on getting younger women to talk about their achievements and success. It made me smile to hear her say this, since my view has always been action over discussion, so to have to curated this panel and then hear the same statement was slightly ironic, but more so, incredibly encouraging.

Vikki Chowney

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search