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Inspiring Future female leaders: A Q&A with Clarity’s CEO, Rachel Gilley

Rachel Gilley recently became Clarity’s first female CEO. In this blog, run as part of our 2024 International Women's Day celebrations, we asked Rachel about her journey to leadership, how she overcame the challenges she experienced, and her thoughts on how we can continue to drive a more equitable workplace.

Where did you start out, and what are the puzzle pieces that came together to land you at this milestone?

I started my career in the late ‘90s, so not unexpected that I experienced moments of misogyny at that time, however, I’ve also had many champions, both men and women, through my career. At Uni I studied acting; only doing a business module because my dad insisted. And while I eventually ended up as a business leader, my acting training taught me the importance of understanding the role I had to play, rehearsing to achieve the best results, and how to perform to a difficult audience, and keep going!

I entered the business world at a political lobbying agency, where an inspirational female colleague - Bridget Bouch who now heads up Sales and Marketing at Jablite - suggested I consider PR because I seemed to have the prerequisite people skills she thought would transfer. 

So, I joined tech PR agency Text 100 where my love of technology began. I then wanted more marketing experience so took a role at Reed Exhibitions, before moving to Bite (part of the N15 group where Text 100 sat). There I was lucky to work with Clive Armitage, Bite’s then CEO, who has become a mentor for me over the years.  After just under two decades at Bite , which went on to become Archetype, I joined Clarity as UK MD in January 2019.  I then became EMEA MD, then Chief Client Officer, and was very excited to step into the CEO role this January.

Just 10% of Fortune 400 Global Companies’ CEOs are women. Is this changing? And are any sectors or companies leading the way?

The numbers are staggeringly low. Women are more likely to be heads of state than leaders of global IT companies, Unicorns, or Fintechs. And only 15% of heads of state are women. These numbers are slowly shifting upwards, albeit while ‘welcoming’ worrying new trends like the ‘glass cliff’ (“...where women and other minorities are preferentially selected for leadership positions in times of crisis, placing them at increased risk for failure”).

However, working closely with business leaders across the regions where we operate, there’s no doubt that in the last five years I’ve seen significantly more women in senior leadership positions— even if the coveted CEO role is still heavily skewed towards males. Another positive trend, notably in tech where we have many clients, is we’re seeing more male C-Suite executives advocate for women to be given, and supported in, board positions. Why? Because the data is clear: businesses performance, culture, and governance improves with a diverse board.

What does a good CEO look like in 2024? Are you inspired by any other female leaders?

There are so many great traits I’ve seen in the leaders I’ve admired throughout my career. Here are my top five:

#1. Big picture thinking: Leaders have to be able to paint a picture of the business journey to all stakeholders, but also pivot quickly in response to change; 2023 was a stark reminder of that!

#2. Leading with ethics: Integrity, honesty, and transparency have never been more important, and are essential if you want to make a genuinely positive impact.

#3. Knowing you’re not on your own: The best leaders trust and empower their teams, while listening to, and acting on, what their teams have to say.

#4. Being a great communicator: CEOs tend to come from financial, legal, or product backgrounds, but I believe a comms background is also beneficial: we understand the value of being meaningfully vocal.

#5. Understanding generational differences: This is an understated one, but the shift to WFH then back into the office has highlighted that when we grew up makes a big difference to how we live and work. Having teenage daughters has been a masterclass for leading Gen Z, especially acknowledging you can’t please everyone, and the importance of being consistent around your values.

Someone who I’d say embodies all these things is Mary Portas. A founder, CEO, and broadcaster—with an OBE to reflect her accomplishments—she’s also a passionate advocate for women in business. I read what she writes, and listen to what she has to say. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, she doesn’t apologize for ruffling feathers but rarely says anything that shouldn’t be heard. 

How do you inspire inclusion in the workplace/the industry? 

I’m now accountable for inclusion being front of mind in the way we work, who we work for, the way we show up as an organization, and our place in our industry. By this I mean the full definition of inclusion, not just gender. 

Clarity has worked really hard - and continues to do so - to ensure every Clariteer feels the benefits of the policies and support we offer, as we look to provide a safe, collaborative and empathetic space. Led by our People & Culture Team, and our staff-led Wellness Taskforce, we’ve built a suite of services deliberately designed to promote inclusion for everybody, across their lifetime. These include an enhanced family leave program for all parents, a menopause support policy that we’re currently further uplifting, a transitioning at work policy (full support and any medical treatments are covered under our standard sickness absence policy for leave entitlement), and many more. 

Our gender diversity figures are a work in progress (a 65:35 female to male global team, and 50:50 female to male Global Leadership Team, ExCo, and Board), and we’re working to make a difference to this short- and long-term through mentoring. This includes our Global Mentoring Program (linking staff up with senior leaders within the organization), and our ongoing work going into local schools to encourage people from all walks of life to join our industry.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Being confident is so important, and with so many of us struggling with imposter syndrome: you sometimes have to fake it, till you make it! This takes practice, and every win needs to be celebrated because it psychologically sets you up for the next one.

Advocate for yourself—don’t assume someone is going to do it for you. You can’t be afraid to ‘negotiate’ on your own behalf for what you really want, and what you believe you deserve.

Find your people, whether they’re friends or mentors, you need them around you to give you those confidence boosts, and a healthy dose of ”‘just get out there” pep talks. I would be bereft without those individuals in my life.

Finally, never settle! This is true of life and love: if you’re unhappy; if you’re being walked over; talked over; not heard - remember you have options. You can take a stand or you can leave. And around the corner there will absolutely be a better company, job, manager, experience where you will be appreciated.

Clarity is currently offering free one-hour-long consultancy calls with female-owned businesses in all the regions where we operate. What does this program entail and why are you doing this? 

I want Clarity to play its part in promoting gender equality beyond our company and sector, particularly women’s empowerment in business. Women owned businesses are too often underrepresented. The stats continue to bear this out; looking at the UK alone: the British Bank reported that ‘83% of deals that UK VCs made last year had no women at all on the founding teams and at current rates, for all-female teams to reach even 10% of all deals will take more than 25 years (until 2045)’. Similar data can be found for pretty much every country around the world.

If we can play a small part in improving these statistics by providing support, consultation and resources, for free, so these businesses can succeed, then I want us to be part of that!  

What are some key changes, either in the workplace or wider society, that you believe need to be made to boost gender equality more quickly?

This is a hard question because there’s so much that needs to be done. We need to significantly reduce the gender pay gap, create safer working environments, increase the number of female leaders, and promote male advocacy - they’re out there, and we need and want them to use their influence to challenge male-dominated systems.

I’ll finish on two themes I believe are important in building a more inclusive world for women:

#1. You can’t be what you can’t see: We need more female leaders, especially non-white female leaders, to show the next generation what they can strive towards.

#2. Flexible working to support everyone, inclusive of—but not exclusive to—working parents: We know that gender parity is getting closer for women and men in their early career up until their mid-thirties. It’s here however, that inequality starts to set in - around the time many working parents decide to start a family. While organizations can do more to support women (some are now offering on-site childcare facilities), this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the government. As usual, the Nordic countries can be seen as a role model here, boasting some of the ‘happiest children in the world’ as well. Their extremely progressive childcare policies include capping childcare costs, and in Sweden tying the cost of childcare directly to a household’s gross income. We need to get creative and serious globally to fix this issue.

Would you be interested in an hour of free marketing and comms consultancy for your female-owned business? Reach out here.

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