With all the news about men behaving boorishly at work, you would be forgiven for thinking gender discrimination is a law of nature.
Fortunately, there are exceptions, as PR and marketing trailblazer MaryLee Sachs discovered early in her career.
It was the 1980s, and gender discrimination in the United States, while potent, was more hush-hush than now. Fearless, determined and ready for a change, Sachs, even in her 20s, demonstrated the chutzpah that helped her become the first woman to run a multinational communications agency.
Resigning from a safe PR job in the United States and looking for a change, she moved to the United Kingdom. Thirty interviews later, she landed a job as an account manager at top multinational agency Hill+Knowlton Strategies.
In her new position, Sachs didn’t bump up against a glass ceiling and was welcomed by a group of collegial, senior-level women who served as role models and peers.
“The culture seemed to be more inviting to professional women, or at least more neutral than in the US,” she told me in an interview. H+K’s UK office, for example, pioneered creating part-time roles for new mothers who were senior executives returning to work.
Sachs ended up staying in London 17 years.
She attributes the national difference to the fact that the communications function overseas seemed less corporate and siloed — particularly in marketing as opposed to corporate or public affairs.
As an American abroad, she ran into some cultural differences and had to learn the nuances of working with people there. “I worked harder at being accepted than I would have done here.”
“You roll with the punches. You act very professionally. You’re persistent, positive and focused and you don’t take no for an answer.”
Undeterred and determined, Sachs moved up quickly and within eight years was running half of H&K London, which overtook the firm’s New York office in size, after a brief stop at Fleishman-Hillard (whose London office she helped launch).
Sachs says she didn’t come up against the “old boy’s network” until she returned to the United States in 2002 for a promotion to president and CEO of H+K USA.
In her new position, she wanted to do some house cleaning that included “changing out” some senior-level men for people who had a “more entrepreneurial mindset and were more challenging of the status quo.” She encountered resistance.
“My experience is that women are dismissed much more easily, and there seems to be a much stronger professional safety net for men.”
“I’ve seen a lot of what I would call mediocrity in the male executive ranks while women have to excel across the board,” she said.
Gender discrimination cut many ways for Sachs.
“My biggest challenge was getting paid fairly. Women in comparable jobs were being paid less.”
One cause of the problem, Sachs said, is the mirror issue: “People hire in their likeness, so men hire more men. This also affects people of color.”
Not being one to sit back, Sachs took steps to change the situation. In addition to hiring a female chief talent officer, she advocated for diversity in her firm and was an active voice on the subject in the industry at large.
Sachs recently joined the large number of women in the ranks of American entrepreneurs. She calls the experience “liberating.”
Sachs says Job One at her new company will be to hire a diverse workforce of multiple nationalities and ethnicities and a balance of men and women.
So what can women today do to advance in the workforce?
Here are four recommendations courtesy of Sachs:
- Be persistent, business-like, determined, excel in all that you can and persevere.
- Be true to yourself. “Women tend to look at things differently, and it’s that difference that can really add value to the professional environment.”
- Promote your own brand. Get out there and be seen, including on social media.
- Continue to learn. “Build an armory of professionalism, knowledge, advice and counsel. This is hugely important since everything is changing so rapidly.”
Wendy Marx is president of Marx Communications, an award-winning B2B PR and digital marketing agency. Her firm specializes in helping SMBs become well-known industry brands and dramatically transform their business through public relations and content marketing.