This article originally appeared in Authority Magazine.

Authority Magazine, a Medium publication, interviewed Gemma Atkinson, Active’s Global Chief People Officer, about her “squiggly” career path, the role that corporate culture plays in promoting gender diversity, and her tips for women in leadership roles.

Despite ongoing conversations about gender equality, a gap remains in the representation of women in board and executive leadership roles. It’s more than just numbers — it’s about the enriched perspective, creativity, and insight women bring to the table. What are some strategies, initiatives, and real-world practices that have successfully elevated women to board and executive positions? In this interview series, we are talking to C-suite executives who can share their experiences and insights about “How To Get More Women On Your Board and Executive Leadership Team”. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Gemma Atkinson.

Gemma Atkinson is the Global Chief People Officer at Active International, where she focuses on creating an exceptional employee experience and developing high-performing teams. Prior to joining Active in a new business development, strategy and marketing role in 2011, she held positions in the advertising industry at Hamblyn Media Selection, Digital Cinema Media and Carlton Screen Advertising, amongst others.

Gemma is passionate about learning, growing, teaching and mentoring. She is a member of Women in Advertising and Communications, Leadership, serving on their Future Talent committee and part of the mentoring program, as well as the Alliance of Independent Agencies. She also facilitates peer coaching sessions for senior women in the industry and leads keynote corporate speaking sessions. In addition to her MBA from Edinburgh Business School with a focus on organizational behavior, Atkinson is an accredited Executive Coach with the Association for Coaching, an NLP practitioner with ANLP International CIC, a Mental Health First Aider with MHFA England, and accredited to undertake psychometrics with Hogan Assessments, MBTI and FIRO.

Gemma has a special affinity with Giraffes for their best-in-class perspective and communication. We can all strive to emulate their qualities and “Be More Giraffe”.



Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about balancing the board, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I describe my career path as squiggly, with some side hustle vistas along the way. After two (unpaid) internships in TV production and publishing, my first fully-fledged role was in Cinema Sales, where I stayed for 12 years and progressed to Commercial Director. After a stint as a recruiter, I moved to Active International as Head of New Business and then held roles in Sales, Client Development, and Leadership, moving from managing director of our UK office to international COO, and now my current role as Global Chief People Officer. What all these stops along my career journey have in common is unlocking potential and building relationships.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Around 8 years into my career, I was recognized by Campaign Magazine with a 30 Under 30 award. That same month, I was declined a bursary for a course to progress my career, by another industry body. Within the space of a week, I was both elated and deflated. This was a life lesson that there will be highs and lows, and we must recognize that things happen for us, not to us. Reframing this experience, I learned that you “win some, you learn some.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Active, we are entrepreneurial with equal parts business and creative. We are independent and in 13 countries; we have global reach with local expertise. One of our values is to ‘be a thinker and a doer’, and this, I believe, is our competitive advantage.

While we’re driven by data, we’re guided by people. And we encourage each of our Activians to think “what if we can” not “what if we can’t”. Evidence of this can be seen in product development from all levels and departments, driving revenue and opportunity.

One example. When the complexities of a media buying project (aggregating and optimizing video inventory) outgrew the available tools on the market, the team answered the challenge by building and patenting the technology themselves. They then turned that technology into a service and its own profit center, a true celebration of entrepreneurship.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Angela Duckworth talks about grit, which she describes as passion and perseverance. I believe both are key ingredients for success. I would also add another one, purpose. (I’m also a big fan of alliteration).

About a decade ago I trained to become an Executive Coach. It was a series of residential courses across a period of 18 months. Intense, immersive and I was completely out of my depth. As an MD/COO my role is to lead, direct and provide vision. As a coach my role is to listen and ask questions; by definition not to answer or lead.

For the first 9 months I received consistent developmental feedback; allow your coachees the space to think, and trust in the process. I am pleased to share that passion, perseverance, and finding a purpose in the power of the pause, together with nearly 1,000 coaching hours, I am both a senior leader and an effective coach.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

The biggest challenge you face as a leader is understanding who you are as a leader. One of the benefits of hindsight is that when I look back to the leaders I worked for and with I recognize the importance of context, values, and beliefs. Having a career in the media industry with a focus on sales and commercial roles, the leaders I experienced presented styles that did not always match my values and aspirations. As I progressed the hard choice was to forge my own style and not try to be something I wasn’t. I am a big fan of Dolly Parton and her words, “find out who you are and do it on purpose”. Having the determination to be you, on purpose, is not always easy.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. How do you view the importance of having more women on your board and executive leadership team? Can you describe the value they bring from your own experience?

Diversity of individuals brings diversity of thought and experience, whether creativity, problem-solving, or decision-making. Women bring a different lens to interpersonal and so-called, soft skills or, as I like to reframe, power skills. Not better, just different. Research from Harvard Business School, McKinsey, and others tells us that higher levels of gender diversity positively correlate with better future financial performance. Despite this as, of January 2023 women make up less than 11% of the CEO workforce at Fortune 500 companies. Companies flourish when there is diversity of thought and experience.

Reflecting on the last few years, what positive changes have you noticed regarding women in board and executive roles? Conversely, are there areas where progress has been slower or more challenging?

During the pandemic, we saw many female world leaders, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Nicola Sturgeon, Mette Frederiksen, and Sanna Marin lead with clarity and compassion. However, progress is slow. We still talk about female leaders, not leaders. Gender equality is still an ambition, not a reality. There are 41 women leading S&P 500 companies, a new record and higher than the 23 CEOs named John or Jon. This is an interesting statistic when you think that women make up over 50% of the US population yet only 2% are called John. Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously said, “When I’m sometimes asked, ‘When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?’ and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” Progress is being made but we need to accelerate the pace of change.

What, in your view, might prevent women from seeking board positions?

My observation, and experience, is that there are 3 key reasons that prevent women from seeking board positions, systemic, cultural, and organizational. From a systemic point of view, gender bias is still very much in play with women often overlooked. Culturally, many women still lack mentorship and sponsorship to accelerate advancement in the same way males in the workplace experience this. Organizationally there needs to be both role models and representation as well as a commitment within companies to diverse candidate slates. The adage we can’t be what we can’t see is still very much in play.

While focusing on gender diversity, how do you also ensure a broader diversity of thought, background, and experience within leadership? How do these elements intertwine?

To ensure broader thought, background, and experience, additional focus is needed in two areas. The first is transparent promotion criteria. Quantifying and qualifying what is required for leadership and being open with both “the what” and “the how”. The second is to ensure that internal and external recruitment practices seek out diverse candidates, as a rule. This needs to be championed by the board and challenged when it is not present. We need to look at the whole system and ensure we have a culture of inclusivity and a commitment to diversity. It’s about redefining the systemic, cultural, and organizational barriers and creating opportunities for change and advancement.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things That Should Be Done To Get More Women On Your Board and Executive Leadership Team”?

My five things to get more women on your board and executive leadership team, share a common thread. They involve shining a light on women’s stories, successes, and superpowers.

A belief in yourself and your colleagues (not just women), that we can change the story and get more women on boards and executive leadership teams. The barriers are systemic, cultural, and organizational, and elements of all of these are not always within our control. I have reframed the approach to share five things that are in our control. See more on this here:

1 . Curate your own curriculum.

Each January, I challenge myself to develop a guiding word for the year, something I want to learn and practice that will develop me personally and professionally. Patience led me to focus on listening and critical thinking. Play prioritized creativity and innovation (this is a work in progress). This is more than a word; it is an intention and a consistent practice across the year. Curate your own curriculum and seek out opportunities to upskill and reskill. Be bold, take charge, and take risks. Careers are not always linear; mine has zigged and zagged, and each experience has given me a new lens with new opportunities. The outcome of taking risks is growth.

2 . Lift as you climb and build bridges along the way.

Show support for future female leaders by sharing their successes. As you rise, elevate others. It is often said your brand is what is said about you when you are not in the room. When you have the opportunity as a female leader, amplify the voices not in the room. Share their stories, increase their visibility, and broaden their future network. Lift as you climb. It was Angela Davies who said, “Walls turned sideways are bridges.” Look at those walls in the rooms you are in and create bridges.

3 . Adopt the slow yes and the quick no — shed to shine.

When we say yes to something, we say no to something else. In business, we talk about opportunity cost. This I believe also refers to women’s opportunities for advancement. We often say yes to the tasks, initiatives, and projects that don’t stretch us or show our value. It is important to use our resources wisely. What got us here will not get us there. I encourage women to do an audit of how they spend their time and what they need to shed to shine. How we spend our days is a predictor of how we will spend our lives, including our working lives. My audit showcased I was spending most of my time in the now, as opposed to the next. Understanding the company’s future direction and aligning how you spend your time to those challenges and opportunities aids opportunity and progression. What percentage of your time is spent on the transactional and the now, and what percentage on the transformation and the next? We need to become more comfortable with owning the word no in the pursuit of our next.

4 . Have curious conversations — your network is your net worth.

I am not a fan of the word networking. It conjures up golf, lanyards, and, if I am being honest, a little fear. However, I’m a huge fan of connecting with people that are smart, energizing, and inspire me. When we reframe ‘networking’ to curious conversations, we open possibilities and potential partnerships, advocates, and amplifiers. Your network is your net worth. Invest.

5 . Assemble your personal board of directors.

Following on from your curious conversations, start to build a personal board of directors. People who will be your cheerleaders and your challengers. Identify your superpower and make sure these are visible to you and others. Make sure you are known for being __________ (insert your superpower here). Equally important, find your areas for development and seek out the people, strategies, and resources to help you close the gap. Often, having an accountability person or two (or three) will be a huge accelerator in your career.

In your opinion, what role does corporate culture play in promoting gender equality? Can you explain?

Equality for me is ensuring that there are opportunities, access, and recognition for both men and women. It is not just about equality but equity; gender equity is about understanding and responding to the historical injustices that women (and other groups) have and continue to face.

Conversations about culture at work have become much louder and more frequent. Culture is a company’s competitive advantage. The idea that “we train people so they can leave and treat them well, so they want to stay” is fundamentally about creating a culture based on values and behaviors rooted in being a good human being. At Active, we have three actionable values; innovate and simplifybe a thinker and a doer, and connect, care, and co-create. These were selected with input across the organization, with intention, and with a commitment for everybody to achieve, aspire to, and inhabit.

With your commitment to achieving gender balance and fostering diversity, what are the thoughts or concerns that keep you awake at night? How do these reflections shape your approach as a leader?

What keeps me awake at night is how we make progress at pace. How we shine a light on women with great performance AND potential and support these women. I saw someone wearing a T-shirt the other day that said, “Equal rights for all does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.” As a leader, one of my commitments is to shine a light on our future female leaders, share their successes, and amplify their voices.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Over the last few years, we have seen the concept of Kindness become something that is talked about in business, at company away days, in Town Halls, and in offices, real and virtual. I believe this is only the beginning of how we can humanize work. We have 168 hours in our week and work plays a large role in that. Kindness is an amplifier. Being kind boosts serotonin and oxytocin, increasing self-esteem, empathy, and compassion and improving moods. Being kind can change the world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.