IN THEORY, Shantel Bassanna has created the perfect working environment for women who want a career and a family. Women who want it all, in other words, in that eternal quest for a family life without sacrificing success in the workplace.
Bassanna is the director of the all-female marketing and promotions company XP², which she founded with the goal of creating better working conditions for women. The marketing industry is notorious for its high staff turnover because of long hours involving evenings and most weekends, she says. "The pressures of the job and running a family are inconsistent. People seem to think it can’t be done, and I’m of the opinion that it can."
Ironically, the test of how well her efforts work in practice will come only when half the staff simultaneously becomes pregnant, or Bassanna herself becomes a mother. That probably won’t be soon, as the hard work and long hours behind creating XP² contributed to the break-up of her 10-year relationship. "I was working until midnight, then stopping at McDonald’s before going home and working for another couple of hours. So he didn’t see much of me and it was a strain. But that’s what it took to run the business. It’s taken three years to get my systems to where they need to be."
Yet that hasn’t dented her belief that kids and a career are still comfortably compatible. Her business partner has a child and XP² was designed to cope.
"I have managed to get my business to accommodate that for the very selfish reason that it’s what I want. One day my intention is to have a family so I need the business to be flexible."
But Bassanna enjoys the all-female environment for several other reasons. Women plan ahead better, see things coming and are more empathetic than men, she says. She had an excellent role model, with her mother raising her and her brother single-handedly after her parents separated when she was four. Her mother worked to put both children through university, and also improved her own education at the age of 40: "My mother always said that ‘if you are not better than we are, then we have worked for nothing’."
The challenges faced by women at work are no different from those faced by men — even though they are often paid less. Yet many women have the additional challenge of juggling their domestic responsibilities: "The women I work with who have families seem to have a different skill set. They think a bit further ahead and constantly adapt to fit everything in." Corporations generally fear that women will put their family life first, to the detriment of their performance at work. But companies should look at it from a fresh perspective, she says, and see how the demands of a woman’s personal life can improve her decision-making and offer positive benefits in the workplace.
Her views might be enough to make the average man’s blood boil, but Bassanna stands firm in her beliefs. "Women bring an entirely new perspective and different skills to the business world. Women often excel at evaluation because we have a greater tendency to consider the emotive ramifications of our decisions. Our thought processing allows us to seamlessly combine intuitive and logical thinking."
Women also have better people skills, she says, with psychological studies showing that women are often better at interacting with colleagues and have greater empathy. They often play highly supportive roles through mentoring and training, which boosts other employees and unlocks their potential, benefiting the company in the long run.
The all-female environment in XP² means that if one employee has something personal to attend to, the attitude of shared responsibility and understanding sees other colleagues fill in for her.
Bassanna’s nine permanent workers and two part-timers plan promotional events such as product launches, in-store promotions, demonstrations and road shows. They also recruit and train young staff to run the promotions.
In most marketing agencies, the managers must drive to each venue to check that the promotional staff turned up and are doing a good job. To save that tedious legwork, Bassanna commissioned a technology company to design software to automate the process.
For every campaign, the GPS co-ordinates of each venue are fed into the system. The promoters are sent SMSes reminding them of their duties and, on the day, the software monitors the location of their cellphone in relationship to the store where they are supposed to be. By reconfirming their location, the system can alert their manager if the promoter is nowhere near the workplace. That gives the manager time to check for dropouts, and quickly organise a replacement.
"I have used a lot of technologies and systems to enhance the way we do business so my core team doesn’t work at weekends. I don’t think anything is ever as perfect as we’d like it to be, but I’m making it easier. Our industry is usually a short-lived career because people want families and just can’t work the kind of hours agencies expect."
As the boss, she still works seven days a week, but now it’s because she wants to, not because she has to.
When the company recruits promotional staff, it hires on more than good looks and long legs, preferring to fit the person to the product. A food product may be promoted by temps from a catering college, or a technology promotion staffed by technology geeks.
Since the average age of the promotional staff is 17-22, they often act like children, Bassanna says. That makes women better at managing them because they often need mothering. Female managers tend to think of everything that could go wrong and prepare to deal with it because they can pre-empt how the girls will behave.
"Men can get the job done and pretty well, but they just don’t foresee certain things. Women have an instinct — call it a maternal instinct — to predict exactly what a child will do."
As an example, the managers take bets on how many promoters will not come in at the weekend because of "a death in the family", she says. In contrast, male mangers simply expect everything to go according to plan. "It’s like thinking for children the way a mother does, and guys find that a challenge because they don’t see it coming. They only see it coming if someone did the same thing to them a week before."
The computerised systems also help the staff to work smarter, not longer, she says. "I have an exceptionally dedicated team, but how they choose to structure their days is entirely up to them. As long as you have an internet connection you can work from anywhere." That helps every worker, of course, not just those with children. "It’s not just about having a family, it’s about having a life."