Celebrating the Leading Women of Internal Communication on International Women’s Day
There is no better way of celebrating International Women’s Day than by profiling the women I admire most in the business of internal communication. These are women that are breaking ground, breaking rules, and breaking down barriers for other women while helping to improve workplace cultures around the world.
The idea for this post came to me while I was travelling in Africa. It’s an interesting and inspiring back story if you have some time…
The Back Story
I was on the island of Zanzibar (Tanzania) decompressing after a six-day safari in Kenya. One day I decided to get my butt off the lounge chair and walk into town. The town was heartbreakingly poor and it was very difficult to see how people lived. It was on this walk that I met Happiness.
Happiness owns a restaurant and clothing boutique – a quirky combination but it works for her. She has a few tables and serves various types of East African dishes that she must prepare in advance as they simmer in crock pots on the counter. Tucked in a corner is a sewing machine and many yards of colourful fabric. She makes skirts, tops, hair accessories and a variety of bags, while serving meals to customers, and caring for her young children. I was incredibly moved by this strong businesswoman getting it done in a small shop with her young children at her feet, working in sweltering heat with few resources. And all with a huge smile on her face that made it easy for me to figure out how she got the name Happiness.
I ended up asking her to make a reusable fabric shopping bag. I posted a picture on Instagram along with a picture of Happiness in her store. I got orders from 13 friends who wanted bags! And that got me thinking. It’s our 20th year of being in business and along the way I’ve had so much help and support from others. I decided to celebrate 20 years, I would support, elevate or help 20 businesswomen in some way and profiling women in internal communications would be my first random act of kindness.
I interviewed seven women and I asked them four simple questions:
1. How did you end up in internal communication?
2. Has being a woman presented any challenges throughout your career or put you at a disadvantage?
3. Has being a woman in the business of internal communication been an advantage in any way?
4. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Here are their stories and their thoughts on being a woman in the business of internal communication.
Advita Patel had grand ambitions of being the next Bill Gates until the Dotcom bust ruined her plans in the early 2000s. Her first job was working in data management but Advita was bullied by her boss and after much soul-searching she took an administrative role in an academic setting while she figured out what her next steps were. The job turned into so much more as her boss took Advita under her wing, noticing she had a knack for marketing and communications. Her career journey included completing a Masters’ degree in strategic marketing and leading the development and production of the campus newsletter. It was the newsletter that launched her into the world of internal communication as she could see the impact it had — bringing people together and helping leaders achieve greater things.
In 2019, Advita took the brave step of setting up her own internal communications consultancy where she helps clients with internal communication at the strategic and tactical level.
Be the change you want to see
When I asked Advita about the advantages and disadvantages women face in business and the world of internal communication, I expected that she would point to her experience being bullied was proof of the disadvantages women face in the workplace but she matter-of-factly said, “I don’t want to play the victim card.” Instead, she has used the experience to build resilience and speak up for women who feel like they don’t yet have a voice.
One of the things she has noticed is that there are few women from ethnic minorities in communications and that the majority of senior level internal communications positions are held by men. Advita has worked hard to build her confidence so that she can take a role as a change leader. ‘Be the change you want to see’ is a personal mantra that drives much of her work these days, taking an active role in CIPR and making a conscious effort to be visible, in the hope it motivates others to do the same.
The right solution
Advita made a unique observation about the advantages being a woman in internal communications. It has been her experience that women generally don’t let their egos get in the way of finding the right solution and can offer a more diverse perspective.
365 days a Year
The rebel came out when I asked Advita what International Women’s Day meant to her. Her voice hardened and she replied, “OMG I can’t understand why we still have to single out only one day that celebrates women?” She added that we should be celebrating women 365 days a year – paying attention to diversity and empowering women.
Alison Davis founded Davis & Company in 1984 and is a true pioneer in our industry. On top of leading a large internal communication agency in the United States, Alison has written several books and is a regular columnist for Inc.
Alison told me that ending up in internal communications was a happy accident. She was working as a Public Relations consultant when the president of the company she was working for wanted to start an employee newsletter. The company’s leadership team was ahead of its time and made it a priority to communicate and connect with employees and she immediately recognized the difference internal communication could make in building a great workplace.
When she started Davis & Company, the firm started out doing a lot of different types of work but she said, internal communication always “bubbled to the top” — the work was interesting, and so the other PR work fell away as they became more established.
A Sea of White Around Boardroom Tables
When I asked Alison about the challenges of being a woman in the business of internal communication she said, “We’ve made progress, but we haven’t made any progress,” and this lack of progress is most visible by the absence of women around the boardroom table. In this environment, she’s survived and thrived by not being intimidated by tough questions and by calling out people who she feels are not being fair.
Helping People Succeed
Alison believes (generally speaking) there are several advantages of being a woman in internal communication and in business. She said women are empathetic and really listen and pay attention, which is particularly important when there is so much noise to cut through. Alison also talked about her experience as a leader. She told me that she realized a leader’s job is to help people be successful and that women’s tendency to be nurturing helps those in leadership roles bring out the best in people.
Making the World a Better Place
When I asked Alison what International Women’s Day means to her, she wasted no time in answering: “It is an opportunity to celebrate the heroism of women and the role we can play in making the world a better place.”
Ann figures she’s a Unicorn in the world of Public Relations (PR) – she’s worked in internal communications her entire career, joining a firm that did change and employee communications after majoring in PR in college/at university.
Since 2008, Ann has been part of Brilliant Ink, a New York City-based company that focuses on internal communication through the lens of the employee experience. Five years ago, she became the owner and CEO of the firm and now works with a fully remote team spread across the United States.
Ann doesn’t believe being a woman puts her at a disadvantage or has limited her in the business of internal communication. She noted that the industry is heavily dominated by women, so it’s not been a limiting factor for her personally. Ann did point out that men have (and still do!) dominated at the most senior levels of internal communications, but she’s been fortunate that several of these senior male leaders have supported her career and cleared the way for her to grow and succeed.
Broad Range of Skill Requirements Leaves No One Out
Ann echoed many of the other women’s thoughts that because, generally speaking, women are more nurturing and empathetic than men, it is often easier for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the employees. But she added that there is really no one skill or quality that makes you good at internal communications. In fact, the people on her team have a diverse range of skills including data analytics and technology.
“It wasn’t always that way”
Like Advita, Ann said that part of her is sad that there needs to be an International Women’s Day and believes that we need to get to a place where we don’t need to celebrate it. But she also added, “I love the community of women that support and cheer each other. It’s so important that we pull each other up.” Ann is also tremendously proud to be a business owner and she enjoys the ability to connect with so many other women who own their own businesses – even if they run a business in a completely different sector, Ann finds they always have lots to talk about. Reflecting on the increase in women-owned businesses she added, “it wasn’t always that way.”
When I approach Kristin to be part of this blog, she wrote back that she wanted to make sure I had chosen a diverse group of women. It was my first clue that Kristin is hyper-aware of the disadvantages that so many people in this world face today – people from the LGBTQ community and from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds.
Unlike the other women featured in this blog, Kristin comes from a business background and discovered communications while researching academic programs for a friend. With her background in business, she was quick to realize the bottom-line impact better internal communications could have. She is particularly interested in the communication that happens at a granular level – even right down to the one-on-one conversations that can have such an impact on work.
Kristin is a woman in transition these days. She’s just moved to the United States from Winnipeg, Manitoba (that’s in Canada) and is anxious to get back to the internal communications consulting practice she launched just over a year ago. In the meantime, she is learning to be patient and kind to herself, and she’s keeping me laughing with her Instagram stories.
Dialed-in to the Challenges
Like many women, Kristin experienced prejudice at work, particularly early in her career. Today, she is more acutely aware of the challenges she and others face and the importance of diversity and inclusion. She is sensitive to the fact that being a white woman offers her advantages that others don’t have and asks herself what she can do for those who are at a greater disadvantage
Focus on Your Superpower
Rather than talk about the advantages of being a woman in internal communication, Kristin shifted to providing some great advice about succeeding in today’s world – whatever that looks like for you. She offered, “know yourself – learn about yourself and then recognize that everything that is good about you is your superpower.
Miles to Go
When I asked her what International Women’s Day means she said, “For me personally, it’s an opportunity to lift up women who are at a greater disadvantage than I am. Collectively, it is a day to remember that even though we have come a long way, we have miles to go.”
I first met Priya at an employee engagement conference I attended about ten years ago. (I say, ‘met’ but what really happened is that she was a speaker and I reached out to connect on LinkedIn after the conference was over). At the time, she led internal communications for one of Canada’s largest grocery chains. That conference was the first time I met others who shared my passion and Priya in particular was someone that inspired me then, and still does today.
Inside Out Philosophy
Priya started out in customer communication and then took a marketing communication role where she was responsible for managing internal and external communications. As she worked to align what leaders wanted with what was to be delivered by sales and service, she had an epiphany – what happens inside shapes what happens outside.
After dreaming of having her own consulting practice, Priya founded Inner Strength Communication. The work of her internal communication agency is driven by the desire to move the needle by helping companies build inner strength by improving how they communicate with employees and building the capabilities of internal communication teams.
You Can’t Do It All
Despite being a woman and a person of colour, Priya feels she faces just as many challenges on the home front as in the boardroom. Even with an extremely supportive husband who does a lot to help her focus on what she needs to do, she is still chief ‘air traffic controller’ and like many other women, she carries guilt and feels pushed in a lot of directions.
Getting to the Real Issues
Priya believes that (generally speaking), women have strong relationship skills such as understanding and empathy. As well, they dig a little deeper because they have a desire to get to the real story and issues. These are all great qualities and traits for internal communication professionals.
Stories of Impact and Influence
When asked what International Women’s Day means to her, Priya told me that she loves to hear the stories about women making a difference around the world. For her, “it is a time to showcase the impact and contributions women have made – whether they are a stay at home mom or the CEO.”
Rachel Miller is the founder of All Things IC. Based in the UK, her company supports and nurtures (there is that word again) professional communicators so they can thrive. She acts as a trusted advisor and also provides training to boost the knowledge, skills and confidence of people working in the industry. Through her Masterclasses she has trained close to one thousand professional communicators!
Rachel discovered the world of internal communication while searching for her next career move back in 2003. She’d been working as a journalist and stumbled across a job posting for an internal communications specialist. She’d never heard of internal communication before and was delighted to discover there was a whole new world out there. She spotted an opportunity to apply her skills and experience and learn a lot more. She’s never looked back.
It’s Lonely Out There
While Rachel didn’t mention challenges specific to women in internal communications, she did mention a broader issue and that is the feeling of isolation that many in-house practitioners experience. Together with her fellow co-founders and friends Jenni Field and Dana Leeson, she established The IC Crowd to tackle this problem. As the crowd has grown @TheICCrowd on Twitter, the conversations and support has increased. Their upcoming unconference, The Big Yak in June 2020 is the fifth time they’ve gathered the crowd face-to-face. She said, “It’s a pleasure to see the crowd helping each other overcome challenges.”
Begin at Home
As a ‘mum’ of three young children, a seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old twin sons, Rachel and her husband are teaching their little ones about equality. They’re helping them understand why it matters because it’s never too early to communicate along these lines.
Open to Everyone
Rachel doesn’t believe gender comes into being an IC practitioner. She said, “the beauty of the profession is it’s open to everyone, whoever you are and whatever background you have.” She noted that she is a confident and assertive woman, but it was a skill she had to learn. She’s also experienced imposter syndrome, and she knows that many practitioners have, including men.
A Day of Giving and Gratitude
When I asked her what International Women’s Day means to her, she said, “I believe you gain more when you give, and this ethos has been a constant throughout my career.” She supports
women throughout the year, particularly through mentoring. Rachel noted that International Men’s Day is 19 November and is equally important to highlight. (Awesome and perfect opportunity for me to write about them Men of Internal Communication!).
Rachel also said the day provides an opportunity to pause, reflect and express gratitude to those around me. When she created her business, All Things IC, in 2013, she only knew a handful of women consultants who were running their own companies. Over the years she has seen many friends and peers launch their own businesses and she loves seeing them carving out their place in the comms world.
She also expressed gratitude to her personal assistant Louise for her ongoing support – for both All Things IC clients and for Rachel. “She makes working together a pleasure,” says Rachel.
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR
Rita is one of the rising stars in the world of public relations research. She is an associate professor in the Department of Public Relations at the University of Florida, she’s published two books, and she has written over 50 articles in leading journals. Rita has also won numerous awards including the 2010 Ketchum Excellence in Public Relations Research Award from the Institute for Public Relations. Her areas of interest include internal communication, leadership communication, measurement and evaluation, relationship/reputation management, emerging technologies, and entrepreneurial communications – an area of research driven by the fact that her husband founded a technology start up.
Rita ended up focused on internal communications when she was doing her PhD at the University of Miami. She saw a gap in the research, particularly from the strategic perspective. She had also worked for the Alibaba Group, a multinational technology conglomerate and was curious about how the organization’s leader, Jack Ma motivated people. She wanted to find out the interrelationship between leadership and internal communications and how leaders influence success.
Navigating Work and Life
Rita told me that her biggest challenge as a woman in academia is balancing her role as a caregiver with her passion for her work. This is particularly challenging as she has a commuting marriage — her husband is a technology entrepreneur based in San Francisco. Rita is driven to be the best version of herself and outperform in every one of her roles. This means being a great mom to her two-year-old daughter while also pursuing her ambitious career goals. She believes the path to getting there is learning from others and being willing to walk out of her comfort zone.
Breaking through the Glass Ceiling
When asked about the advantages of being a woman, Rita quickly points to the research (of course) that shows females have certain types of skills and attributes that make them better leaders – they have higher emotional intelligence, they are more caring and collaborative, and they are also take on mentoring roles and are relationship oriented. Rita is positive about women’s ability to break through the class ceiling and she points to several high-profile CEO announcements as proof that society is changing.
A Day of Reflection
For Rita, International Women’s Day is a to recognize what women have achieved in our personal lives and in society as well. She believes it has a broader meaning where people can be proud of being themselves, whatever their special qualities and wonderful things they are capable of doing. However, it is also a day to remember that there is still work to be done, especially in some countries.
She says, at a personal level it is a day for self-reflection – to think about her various roles and to appreciate being a woman – it is a privilege. She remembers being a young girl and thinking that being a woman must be special since we have our very own day.
Notes of hope and Inspiration
A strange thing happened halfway through this project. I realized that it was me who was benefitting from these interviews. I loved hearing their stories, and the confidence and power in their voices. I could hear the notes of hope even as they described some of their greatest challenges. If you’ve read this far, thank you! I hope you’ve found the same inspiration that fills my heart as I write these final words.
Happy International Women’s Day!