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Passing the Baton: Creating a Better Workplace for Women

Graphic outlines of three women facing to the left.
5 min read
Published: March 24, 2023
Last Updated: March 28, 2023

On the first day of 2023, five new women took the helm of Fortune 500 companies, bringing the total number of female CEOs to 53. This means that now over 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. But of the Russell 3000, which is the top 3,000 public companies based on market capitalization, only 6% of the CEOs are women. Julie Iskow added to those numbers when it was announced she would be the new CEO of Workiva in the spring of 2023. Of course, every step forward is good, but the numbers make it clear how far we have to go for equal representation at the top.

Up until three years ago, there were zero women on our executive management team, then one, and now three out of seven. That says something about our board, that says something about the acceptance and openness of Workiva. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘If I can see it, I can be it.’ We don’t know exactly what this means for Workiva, but we do know that it will accelerate equality and make us better.
Julie Iskow
President and CEO

As part of Workiva’s events celebrating International Women’s Day, the leaders of our Women Business Employee Resource Group (BERG) hosted a fireside chat with Julie Iskow, President & CEO, and Penny Ashley-Lawrence, Chief Customer Officer at Workiva. The topics ranged from the importance of gender diversity in leadership, further elevating skills and influence, and advancing women's allyship.

Throughout the fireside chat, Julie and Penny shared an incredible amount of advice and words of wisdom for women (and allies) to succeed in the workplace.

Leadership teams need to be diverse, period. Women tend to be stronger communicators, achieve greater work-life balance, and they tend to be more inclusive overall.
Penny Ashley-Lawrence
Chief Customer Officer 
  • Don't worry about making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. Confidence is admitting mistakes and learning and improving for the next time.

  • Many of us have dealt with imposter syndrome. If you’re dealing with it now, find an ally to help you work through it. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We should lean on each other.

You can be both fearless and terrified of failure. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Failure is totally fine. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.
Penny Ashley-Lawrence
Chief Customer Officer 
  • It can be easy to stay quiet, to not speak up in meetings, but your voice matters. Look at your calendar and determine why your voice is needed in that meeting. Define why you’re there—why it has to be you and no one else—and have that in mind when you go into the meeting.

  • Contribute your perspective.

  • Go meet three people in your field (or an adjacent field) that you don’t know and network. Ideally, it’d be someone a rung or two above you, a rung or two below you, and a third in between. Mix up searching for mentors and folks to mentor yourself. When expanding your circle, you’ll find even more support out there.

  • If you have an idea, share it with your peers and leaders. Frame the problem and how you propose to solve it to gain support.

It’s so powerful when someone comes to me, and says, ‘I really think this is a problem, and I’ve thought of three solutions.’ That’s a huge impact you’ve just made on a leader.
Penny Ashley-Lawrence
Chief Customer Officer 
  • “This might be a stupid question, but…” If you start with that phrase, you devalued your opinion before you even stated it. And remember, there are no stupid questions. If you’re curious about something, there’s a good chance someone else in the room is as well—and they’re too nervous about speaking up.

  • “That’s just my two cents.” This undercuts everything you said before. It’s almost an apology for giving your opinion. Get rid of it.

  • “I’m not technical.” Don’t downplay your strengths, knowledge, or what you have to contribute. Everyone has greatness in them. Know your value and own it.

  • Get out of your comfort zone and believe in yourself. It all comes back to confidence. Believe you can do it. Taking risks and growing is going to be uncomfortable. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and enjoy the process.

  • Allyship takes intentionality. Penny describes one of her essential allies in her career journey as a boss who “let me run. He advocated for me, and then he promoted me.” For Julie’s part, her mother and sister backed her career goals throughout her life. She also acknowledged how leaders have a role to play as an advocate in recognizing hard work—and being fairly compensated for it—even if the person is not in the room. “I was fortunate to have a leader supporting my career when I wasn’t in the room. It was a potent moment for me—one that I’ve taken with me throughout my career and have been deliberate about doing for other women,” Julie said.

  • To be an ally, go to bat for the women and members of marginalized groups on your team—even (or perhaps especially) when they’re not there. It doesn’t matter if they’re directly under you. As we said above, allyship moves in all directions. Bring up the names that make an impact and need the visibility to move forward.

  • Embrace an “all ships rise” mentality and think about how you can extend your allyship beyond a single group.

You have to hire people who are smarter than you. You have to hire people who challenge you and hold you accountable. Giving your team the tools to do their job. It’s all about the people.
Penny Ashley-Lawrence
Chief Customer Officer 

Equal representation isn’t just an essential part of covering the “S” in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting. Research has shown that women’s presence in company leadership creates ripple effects felt throughout an organization. It changes how companies empower women and the impact they can have on innovation and growth. Studies have also shown that when women hold leadership roles, it helps close the pay gap while increasing innovation, creativity, and profitability.  

That’s why Workiva is proud of the fact that three of our top five executives are women. And Workiva is by no means done with our journey toward equity (both Julie and Penny agree there is more work to do). We're continuously progressing and committed to recognizing room for improvement. Our International Women’s Day fireside chat coincided with the launch of Workiva’s Women BERG. The organization’s mission is to empower women to thrive and drive impact in the ever-changing world, which it’s enacting by continuing the conversation with networking events and panel discussions throughout the month of March—and the rest of the year!

Supporting a diverse, equitable workplace where everyone belongs is a core value and part of the foundation of our culture at Workiva. Interested in joining the team at one of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For? Check out our open positions!

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