Persistence On Parity: CEO Creates A Culture of Gender Equity in Digital Agency

For the tough conversations in her 800-person company, Ansira, CEO Daina Middleton, says she established code language “to get real.”“We say, ‘I’m going to get real for a minute, I’m going to give you feedback and I’m trying to be honest,’” says Middelton, who for the past year has been in charge of the second largest independent digital and CRM agency in the US, and the first female CEO in 99 years.“We don’t have to worry then about hurting people’s feelings. It’s such a relief, we spend that energy pushing forward instead of wasting energy, says Middleton, author of Grace Meets Girt: How To Bring Out The Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within.Can we get an amen?[bctt tweet=”@DainaMiddleton, CEO of Ansira, is the first female CEO in 99 years, works to creat #genderparity, and is the founder of the #GraceMeetsGrit movement. Can we get an amen?" username="takeleadwomen"]Middleton, now based in Dallas, has more than 30 years experience in advertising and marketing, with the last several years in the C-suite. She understands how to shift a culture that values a male dominated culture into one that is fair, transparent and based in parity.After graduating from Oregon State in 1986, Middleton moved to Idaho to work for the Boise Chamber of Commerce, leaving there in 1992. From there she went to Hewlett Packard, where she handled all marketing functions for 16 years, pioneering efforts in digital and search.In 2008, Middleton went to Moxie, where she headed up analytics, research, social and innovation. After one year there, Middleton landed her first CEO position at Performics, and it grew to be the largest performance marketing company in the world with offices in 34 countries. She was there until 2014, when she joined Twitter.“It was interesting to be in Silicon Valley,” Middleton says of her time there beginning with HP in ther 90s, until her time at Twitter until 2015. “Probably the biggest change is the number of women standing up and bonding together.”Following one year at Twitter, Middleton became a leadership coach, before joining the C-suite at Ansira in 2017.The rise of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #EnoughIsEnough has brought some cultural awareness and change to the tech industry.[bctt tweet="The rise of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #EnoughIsEnough has brought some cultural awareness and change to the tech industry. What changes have you seen? Changes you still want to see?" username="takeleadwomen"]“I think the biggest challenge is holding everyone to the male leadership standard,” says Middleton, who authored the 2012 book, <em>Marketing in the Participation Age.</em> “Until we understand there is no one size fits all to leadership, we will not be able to embrace the individual.”In a new study from Stanford University, researchers found, “Many of the women participating in the study said that they felt a double bind: If they worked on the sidelines, they could be overshadowed by their colleagues and overlooked for job promotions. But having a more assertive presence in the office, many women thought, could also backfire,” writes Melissa DeWitte in <a href="">Stanford News.</a>“Rather than emulate behaviors they viewed as inauthentic and masculine, many women chose to quietly challenge conventional definitions of professional success by embracing a different work style, said the researchers,” according to DeWitte. This resulted in “intentional invisibility.”And with invisibility, there is no chance for advancement."Out of the Fortune 500 today, women CEO’s number just 24, down from 32 a year ago. These numbers are just too small to extrapolate a meaningful trend. The issue is why are there not more women CEO’s, not why are women CEO’s leaving. While a 25 percent drop sounds significant, per Equilar, women CEO’s depart at the same rate as male CEO’s. The number of women leading companies in the Fortune 500 had grown to 6.4 percent last year, a record high, from 2.6 percent a decade earlier," writes Betsy Atkins in <a href="">Forbes.</a>“The gender employment gap in the technology sector is impossible to ignore. Women earn only <a href="">28 percent</a> of computer science degrees and hold only <a href="">25 percent</a> of computing jobs. They also hold only <a href="">11 percent</a> of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies,” writes Raya Bidshahri in <a href="">Singularity Hub.</a>Middleton says that many women leaders she encounters have a more inclusive approach in decision making, an arena of work styles that she claims is ‘the most biased.”While men are applauded for being quick to make decisions, “collaboration has now become a real value,” she says. “Women are great collaborators and try to understand these subtle differences.“This “gender gap in <a href="">leadership</a> still persists,” according to a study from the <a href="">University at Buffalo</a> School of Management, that shows “ <a href="">men</a> are more likely than <a href="">women</a> to emerge as <a href="">leaders</a>,” according to <a href="">Economic Times.</a>“The researchers primarily attribute the gender gap to societal pressures that contribute to gender differences in personality traits. For example, men tend to be more assertive and dominant, whereas women tend to be more communal, cooperative and nurturing,” the Economic Times reports.Male or female, a great leader needs to “understand holisitic style differences,” Middleton says, “in order to benefit the team.”Instead of ranking styles by better or worse, Middleton says she discusses styles in terms of “strengths and opportunities.” That way, she says, “We can understand how we leverage other and who you can lean on.”If she had to put a name to her own leadership style, Middleton says it would be “Absolute Authenticity and Transparency.” That leads to trust.“You have to be able to feel comfortable challenging someone and still leave the room as friends,” she says.Feedback is another way to establish trust and build a transparent team Middleton says. “We ask for feedback all the time, to talk about issues. My door is always open and everyone has an invitation to be a part of the conversation.”While she is grateful for her leadership position at Twitter, she learned lessons there about culture that she will not replicate.“I learned there you will be judged by a man’s role in leadership,” Middleton says. “There was a situation at Twitter when many were not meeting revenue expectations and all of the men prepared a summary the night before the meeting and the woman showed up without one, as there was no explanation or expectation that she should.”Middleton adds, “It was like missing the memo.“ For managers, she says, it is essential they be clear about expectatoins to everyone.“There comes a point when you evaluate your situation. I had to say this is not the place for me as they will never understanding my value, so I needed to go somewhere else. That is really hard if you are a loyal person,” Middleton says.Getting to this point has taken work, Middleton says. “I was my biggest critic for a long time. I felt I didn’t have the right level of experience, I needed to be better at X Y and Z.”This is not uncommon for many women who are reticent to claim expertise they have or to override an ongoing Imposter Syndrome.A new study out of the United Kingdom of 3,000 adults, commissioned by Access Commercial Finance, “found that two-thirds of women say they’ve experienced imposter syndrome at work in the past 12 months,” according to <a href="">Forbes.</a>“It also revealed that while men were far from immune from experiencing imposter syndrome, they were 18 percent less likely to do so than their female counterparts,” writes Karen Higginbottom. “A quarter of women said receiving criticism was the biggest cause of their imposter syndrome, while one in five said having to ask for help made them doubt their abilities at work.”The frequency of employees imposter syndrome varies across industries, and can be changed by the workplace culture, the study finds.“The industry sector which reported the highest incidence of imposter syndrome at work is the creative arts and design sector: 87 percent of employees in that sector reported experiencing imposter syndrome in the last 12 months,” Higginbottom writes.Challenging yourself is one way to build confidence and avert the imposter syndrome, Middleton suggests.[bctt tweet="Ansira CEO @DainaMiddleton suggests that challenging yourself is one way to build confidence and avert the #ImposterSyndrome. “ username=“takeleadwomen”]“Never take an opportunity that doesn’t scare you. You will rise to the challenge,” she says.Still she acknowledges that although she is a CEO in a male dominated industry and has achieved great success, that she has her moments of doubt.“Sometimes I forget that I have written two books and am at the CEO level. If you had asked me when I was younger if I wanted to be CEO,” she would have hesitated.“I have surprised myself,” Middleton says, who has two sons, one daughter and is now a grandmother. “I shoot for the next highest thing and am continuously learning, that drives who I am.”She adds, “But what always is persistent is my persistence.”