Margaret Heffernan is standing beside a brown wall and looking sideways into the camera.
Margaret Heffernan. Image:

Why women collaborating ‘isn’t a soft skill, it’s a superpower’

23 Jun 2020

Dr Margaret Heffernan talks about her journey from the BBC to business leadership and how women are still being held back in the workplace.

Dr Margaret Heffernan has had a colourful career. She started out in media production and went on to become an entrepreneur and write six books about business and leadership. Now, she mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organisations.

I got the chance to chat to Heffernan when she spoke at the Talent Summit 2020, taking to the event’s virtual stage with leaders from NASA, Aon and Shopify, among others.

Heffernan told me that she first began writing when she entered the technology industry. “When I worked in tech, there were very, very few women. And I think I eventually met one other female CEO in the course of 10 years.

“And it really provoked a lot of my thinking about how women were thinking about their careers, and how men were thinking about women’s careers.”

Her books focused on that very thing, looking at women entrepreneurs and “how and why we ignore the obvious”.

“And I think one of the obvious things we ignore is the failure to advance women’s careers,” she added.

A moment of realisation

Before her time as an author, Heffernan worked in broadcasting at the BBC for 13 years. She left that job to get her “first taste” of running a business, which she found “tremendously liberating” and continued to do for the next 20 years.

When her husband got a job at Harvard, they relocated to the US and Heffernan found her way into the emerging scene of multimedia and technology. “That’s how I got into tech. I started and ran three companies and I just had a fantastic time and I kept doing it because I loved it.

“So, it was all very unplanned and unstructured – very improvised. But I’m pleased and lucky when I say that I never really did anything that I didn’t enjoy or find a way to enjoy.”

‘Since we’ve rarely been the power holders, we’ve learned to acquire power by working with others’

But it was more than just an interest in business that made her leave the BBC and media production, she explained. “I had a boss who took me out to lunch at one point and said: ‘How are we going to get you to the top table?’. The question was a complete shock in the sense that I’d never really thought there was a top table. I don’t think I’d ever really, honestly thought about power.

“And obviously, the implication of his question was, ‘You should be at the top table. You’re really good’. I think that just absolutely changed my thinking about what I wanted to do – how I wanted my career to go and how I had choices.”

This was the driving factor for Heffernan’s application for a promotion at the BBC. But she didn’t get it and so decided that it was “time to look around”.

A moment of hurt

Heffernan thought that she didn’t get the promotion because she was a woman, and it wasn’t the only time she felt impacted by discrimination in her career. Later, when she was running her second business in the US, she discovered that her companies were funded by an investor who was paying his other CEOs double what he was paying Heffernan. Every one of them was a man.

“It was a moment of extreme hurt because it’s just impossible not to take it personally,” she said. “I remember writing this outraged, furious e-mail to him and then editing it until I think it was probably one sentence, which said: ‘I’m surprised and disappointed to discover that I am being paid 50pc of what my male counterparts are being paid’.

“And the next day, my pay was doubled. But in the course of that experience I had to ask myself a really serious question, which was: what are you going to do if they don’t do anything?

“And that was a really horrifying prospect because I built the company from scratch and hired every single person there. There was no part of me that wanted to leave, but I thought you simply can’t accept it. This is how it’s perpetrated. And I don’t for a moment think these are easy or trivial decisions. They’re gut-wrenching and there’s a huge amount at stake.

“The hurdles are still very present,” she added. “And I don’t feel very positive about the progress that we’ve made in the course of my career. In terms of seriously progressive action for women and for minorities, I think progress has been truly lacklustre and uncommitted.”

Actions above words

A big issue, Heffernan said, is that many companies today talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. She told me about an accounting firm that asked her to speak at a conference they had organised for their senior women employees.

Before agreeing to speak at it, she requested to meet with the women working at the company “to get a better feel for what was going on”.

“What really emerged was that the women were not becoming senior partners because one guy on the sixth floor blocked them,” Heffernan said.

“So, they had a nice diversity and inclusion programme. But there was just one naysayer who was very influential. And so, I said to the organisation: ‘What’s more important? One very powerful individual in this forum, or your stated policies?’ And the truth was they didn’t fire the guy on the sixth floor.

“I think that increasingly we have to refuse to work in places where we are not taken seriously and accorded fairness and respect.

“All of these companies have respect and diversity and all that stuffed into their value statements. But if they’re not prepared to act on it, then I think it’s much more important to save yourself.”

‘This is not your fault’

For women facing discrimination in their careers today, Heffernan said that the most crucial thing is to “see that this is not your fault”.

“This is the system’s fault, and you have to fight for yourself as a way to change the system. So it isn’t that you are less than as an individual. It isn’t that you are not good enough or you haven’t worked hard enough. It’s that the system is not supporting you in your talent and capability. So, don’t get sad. Get angry.”

She also spoke about the benefits women can reap from continuing to work together and support each other. Women often tend to be more collaborative, she explained. “My own theory is that that’s because since we’ve rarely been the power holders, we’ve learned to acquire power by working with others. This is a gigantic advantage in this century, so take that capacity really seriously.

“Develop it. Hone it. Be generous to other women. Help other women and they will help you. It is a phenomenal source of strength. And I think any time you talk to successful women, they will talk about their achievements being with and through others. And it’s not sentimental. It’s not just sharing the credit. It’s absolutely true. This isn’t a soft skill, it’s a superpower.

“And of course, it is difficult for women who like to work collaboratively to be distanced from everyone right now,” she added. “But we will persevere. Women are tough. We’ve endured so far and nobody’s going to stop us now.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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