When I was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of FlowForma, an Irish software firm that specializes in process automation, I was told I had broken two glass ceilings in one go. I was aware that women account for only 30 percent of executive roles in companies around the world, and knew from personal experience that the tech sector in Ireland is still male dominated, but it took me a moment to realize that marketing people rarely get the top job, that this was the second barrier that I had crossed.
Being a woman and a marketer has never felt like an impediment to my career, which reflects well on the companies I have worked for but also says something about my career choices. When it came to marketing, I learnt early on that there were two types of companies, the ones that treated it as a serious business discipline and those who saw it as a secondary function to support sales – I stayed clear of any jobs where this view prevailed.
It still bugs me that it’s frequently labelled a ‘soft skill’, something that anyone can pick up, an airy-fairy role, all about presentation and no substance. Nearly 20 years ago I took a marketing module as part of a business scholarship programme in the United States and it gave me a taste for a business function that is just the opposite – methodical, analytical, and creative. What’s happened since has validated everything I instinctively felt about the job. An increasingly data-driven business world is starting to realise that the marketer may be the best equipped of all for the role of CEO.
The internet changed marketing profoundly. With it came omnichannel routes to customers, multiple online as well as offline channels that companies have to curate to meet increasingly sophisticated consumer expectations. Digital marketing was born and an increased focus on analytics and tools capable of turning data into useful insights.
No coincidence that in some organizations, according to Gartner analysts, marketers were spending more on technology than the IT department. The job had gone from what was largely seen as a supporting role to driving revenue growth in the business. Using dashboards of data, we became the gatekeeper of customer experience, the relationship management piece now seen as increasingly important for competitive differentiation.
None of this is news to FlowForma, a software-as-a-service business. The sales/marketing dynamic of supporting reps-on-the-road never had any relevance for a cloud company that depends on selling high volumes of subscriptions to remote customers anywhere in the world. The challenge is leveraging every digital channel available to us to turn leads into prospects, to sign up customers and keep them. In other words, it’s data driven.
We are a small company, yet six of our twenty-eight employees work in marketing where everything they do is measured and analysed. They combine operational and data skills to support a marketing machine focussed on lead generation and customer engagement. There is a frictionless relationship with sales that would be the envy of many traditional businesses.
A Woman In IT
The well-documented gender imbalance in IT is something I see more outside of the office than in – the majority of management roles in FlowForma are occupied by women. I’m pleased to report, however, that it’s evident but never an issue. Working in a male-dominated environment is normal for me – I did a degree in Information Management Technology which intersected with engineering and coding, where the numbers of women participants dropped even further.
While it’s not been a problem for me personally, it’s something that needs to be fixed. And it has to start in the classroom. I was always naturally inclined towards STEM subjects in school, but it worries me that other girls never had the opportunity to explore science and know if it suited them because of archaic ideas entrenched in our society about gender.
I know from the experiences of my own children that this is changing. My daughter is doing coding in class and would look at anyone like they were mad if it was suggested that it might be better suited to boys than girls. It’s changing but it has to change more quickly – STEM uptake among girls is still low – and it’s the job of industry and education to make sure that barriers to entry are removed. My own story shows that barriers are there to be broken and that a fast-changing business world has no time for preconceived ideas about gender or role.