Company  |  8 March 2021 |  Leah Anathan

Women in tech | Mews CMO, Leah Anathan, on bridging the gender gap

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This year’s International Women’s Day falls on Monday the 8th of March, and the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. We caught up with Leah Anathan, CMO (Chief Marketing Office) at Mews, to get her perspective on gender equality in the world of tech, and how the workplace and beyond is finally seeing some serious change.

 

International Women’s Day 2021 focuses on forging a gender-equal world. Do you think we’re getting closer to achieving it?

Yes, I think we’re clearly making progress, which is wonderful and something to celebrate, but there are a few more glass ceilings that we need to break. If I’m being honest, our work towards gender equality won’t be done for a long time because the progress and advancement that we’re seeing today is unevenly distributed in geographies, cultures and socioeconomic groups. This has been and continues to be a generational challenge.

I entered the software industry in the late 90s and on one hand it was truly a fascinating time to be in tech, but on the other hand, there was so little recognition of the importance of diversity, gender equality, pay equity, etc. It was the exception, not the rule, to see a woman or a person of color in any leadership position. As a result, the topic of gender equality was just not a priority until very recently.

When a company doesn’t make gender-equality a priority and their team is heavily weighted towards male leadership, then you, as a female employee, become dependent on individual leaders to make your career development a priority. That’s exactly what happened to me. Part of the reason that I’m in this position today is because early in my career, some of my colleagues, both men and women alike, were very generous with their time and helped to coach me into a leadership role. I will always be incredibly grateful to those mentors and friends.

At the same time, it's taken me a long time to reach the C-suite, much longer than was maybe necessary. I became a first-time director in my mid-30s, I became a CMO in my early 40s, and along the way I needed to move into different companies and countries for these opportunities. The difference we’re seeing between today and even 10 years ago is a greater investment and focus on the right culture. With a healthy culture, companies are developing the systems and processes that are necessary to support a more balanced workforce, with strong female representation. This has been the missing piece in the puzzle. It’s the difference between a handful of women and an equal number of women realizing their full potential.

I sometimes stand in awe of how much change has happened in the last decade, and then I think: wow, I really hope we don’t need another decade for the next upgrade. We have to move faster than this!

 

How do you think the world of tech is doing today with gender equality?

We’re making progress and it’s important to recognize this. It’s also important to understand what challenges persist. We have four challenges in the tech industry that we need to work on, and some of them are not unique to our industry.

The first one is diversity in the workforce in general. That's not only gender but, age, nationality, background and education. This isn’t a nice to have... a more diverse team is a more competitive team. Boston Consulting Group reported that, “Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.”

Then there’s pay scale. The discrepancy between what men and women are paid for the same job is real. ChartHop reported that in 2020 men in the US working in technology earned 22% more than women, and they have 63% more equity ownership as well. The UK is tackling this with a very innovative approach. Every employer with more than 250 employees is required to publish their salary data, and as a result, we can now see that nine out of ten women work for a company that pays them less.

The third issue is maternity leave. Companies and communities need to support women before, during and after maternity leave. I say companies and communities because the public and private sector each has a role to play. I will never forget the year when I had three women on my team who were pregnant at the same time, two in France and one in the US. France has an exemplary maternity policy and excellent childcare services. The US, on the other hand, does not. The contrast between their experiences was stunning and we did our best to make the benefits equitable, but I was dealing with one of the best maternity systems and one of the worst, at the same time.

The fourth issue is the boardroom, which everyone knows, does not have enough women. I’m always shocked when I present to a board and I’m the only female in the room. Particularly because I’m a Board Chair myself for a non-profit so I sometimes sit on the other side of that table. If we manage to change the balance in the room where very significant investment decisions are made and hugely important decisions about the future of the company are considered, we’ll be healthier for it as an industry. According to McKinsey & Company, we will outperform financially as well.

 

Why is 'choosing to challenge’, the slogan for this year’s International Women’s Day, so important?

For any organization across any industry, challenging decisions and mindsets is healthy. If I think about this in terms of how I build my own team at Mews, I know we’ll be more competitive if we have different life experiences and a wider perspective. I don’t think of diversity and gender balance as a nice to have – I think it’s a key factor in driving a better organization and better outcomes for your business.

I’ve been in a number of start-ups that have been in the right market at the right time, and they weren’t able to have the IPO or big exit. The leadership team and boards of directors just didn’t have enough people challenging them. There was too much ‘same-think’ going on, and I think there’s a direct correlation between this and the success you have as an organization. If you don’t have people who challenge decisions with their own unique perspectives, then you’re at risk of missing the winning playbook.

 

What has your experience been like at Mews?

In February last year (back in normal times) we had a full Mews company outing in Prague and Matt (the CEO) led a discussion about awareness and sensitivity. That’s pretty rare. This is the first company I’ve been in where the leadership team has included openly gay people, and it’s been remarkable for what that’s done for the environment for everyone at Mews, and that includes women as well. I really do feel like this is the company where I’ve had the most equal footing in my career.

Oddly enough, I felt it even in the interviews. It was the first room that I felt wasn’t threatened by a strong female leader and it was really the first time I’ve experienced that in about 23 years. I don’t even know that the people in the room understood the atmosphere that they’ve created, but it’s really quite unique and I'm incredibly grateful for it.

The best thing for Mews as a business and the best thing for this workforce is to make sure that we keep pushing forward with a diverse workforce that is balanced, fair, and gives equal opportunities, because it's good for the business. It’s a bottom-line issue as well as being the right thing to do.

 

Do you do anything outside of work to challenge gender inequality?

I’ve dedicated a huge part of the last five years of my non-work time to an organization called Free to Run, founded by a friend named Stephanie Case. Free to Run provides sports and leadership training to women and girls living in regions of conflict. Most of our work is in Afghanistan and Iraq. I started as an advisor to the board and today, I’m serving as the Board Chair. I’m extremely proud of the work that Free to Run is doing and the incredible team behind it.

Free to Run seemed like an impossible dream and nothing about what we’re trying to do is easy. Stephanie is human rights lawyer, working for the UN, and she specializes in civilian protection in regions of conflict. She’s also an elite ultramarathon runner. The team behind Free to Run includes people with backgrounds in sports, human rights, law, and experience on the ground in conflict zones. Stephanie’s vision was to create a program that would enable women and girls to experience outdoor adventure sports in countries like Afghanistan. Everyone told her it wouldn’t be possible. Not safe, not culturally acceptable, not a priority.

Fast forward a few years, we have several hundred participants, ages 15-25, in multiple provinces throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. Free to Run is about sports and it’s not about sports. It’s about training a group of young women to be able to make plans for themselves; to negotiate with their families for time outside of the house, to be outdoors in nature; to think about mental and physical health as something important; to stay in school; to learn about issues like conflict resolution; to be with groups of other girls from different ethnicities and backgrounds that they might not meet. There are a whole host of things that can be addressed in terms of education and life skills, using an outdoor sports program as a platform.

When I look at this future generation in regions that have been in war for so long, you realize that with the right opportunities, they could be powerful change agents. One of many examples... In 2020, one of our program leaders from Iraq, Shaimaa, received multiple international awards and in January, was featured in Time Magazine on the next generation of activists from the middle east. It's time to focus on the women and girls, to make sure they are part of the agenda and part of the next wave of leaders that come through the region. I believe they can and will drive meaningful change – for themselves and their communities.

 

Are you hopeful that things will continue to change in the future?

I am, because of the millennial workforce and beyond. People in my age group (I’m in my 40s) and older were used to a much more hierarchical approach to management when we got into the workforce. Today, one of things that we need to be very comfortable with is that there’s no hierarchy in a workforce of millennials. You could be the CEO or an intern, in their eyes it's all one and the same, and that can be difficult to understand for some of my peers. Younger people are now more hardwired to see people as equal and it’s taken us a little while to get there, but now they think: of course, there should be female leadership.

The world is shifting hard and I’m so excited and so happy for what the future will bring with generations who are now being educated to be far more open and aware – I’ll take that any day of the week over the leadership that comes from my parents' generation which is just out of date. So I am really hopeful and excited for the future.

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Leah Anathan
8 March 2021