Interview with Shelly Paioff: The Glass Ceiling for Women Still Exists, Even if We Raised It

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We’re continuing to celebrate women throughout the month of March and beyond. We’re sitting down with the members of TaboolHER, Taboola’s women’s collective, about how they view issues of gender equity in the advertising and publishing industry.

In tech, it’s still largely a man’s world, says Shelly Paioff, General Counsel at Taboola. “Tech generally has more men, and even more so when you look at management and senior management, it’s mostly men.”

Though operating as a woman in a mostly male environment can be intimidating for some, Paioff says she has had a good experience at Taboola. However, even she thinks twice before speaking to groups of mostly men to make sure her contribution is valuable.

“It’s not only about having a seat at the table but figuring out how you show you’re adding value with that seat at the table,” says Paioff, adding:

“The way that you add value is by helping a company become more profitable. By understanding the business clearly, you’re in a better position to be able to bring ideas to the table about how the company could become more successful.”

As one of the few women senior executives at Taboola, Paioff says she feels a certain responsibility to pave the way for any women that follow her. “It does feel like I’m setting an example. I have to show that it’s useful to have a different point of view and you should want more women at this level.”

Setting an Example of Work-Life Balance

Another example Paioff is keen to set is the importance of balancing success at work with family life, especially in her team, which is made mostly of women. Early in her career, she remembers working long hours as many lawyers did.

“I always thought that when I had kids, I’d want to be able to put them to bed at night and still be successful in my career.”

As a mom of three young children who holds a senior role, Paioff has achieved that by setting clear boundaries. Even before the pandemic, Paioff worked from home one day a week. Now, like most other people, she’s at home most of the time, but she still sets boundaries between work and home life.

She adds:

“I don’t want women to think that in order to be successful you have to be working all the time without leaving time for the rest of your life. I’m in a senior position at Taboola, and I’m a mom of three young children. It’s important to show women that you can do both in a responsible way.”

Shifting the Glass Ceiling

Coming back to the position of women in the industry, Paioff says there have been changes, with more women moving into middle management roles.

“Before, women couldn’t break the glass ceiling at a much lower level. Now women are moving up higher into management, which is very nice to see.”

Paioff believes attitudes to women in management have started to shift in the last five years.

“There’s been an improvement in that this is something people care about. This is something management cares about. At Taboola, there’s a commitment to have a certain number of women at the senior level management in five years, which is something that we never had before.”

There’s also a shift in the attention given to women’s voices with the creation of TaboolHER, the company’s female collective, which aims to empower female leadership. “It seems it’s more acceptable to have a women’s group whereas before it was almost taboo to speak about these issues,” Paioff comments. “I think that there’s been a shift where people recognize that having different voices in the room adds value in many different places across the organization.”

But she cautions: “There’s still a broken rung on the ladder. The glass ceiling hovers just below the C-suite in our industry.”

Moving Towards Mentorship for Women

Paioff is excited about a formal mentorship program for women that’s rolling out at Taboola in Q2 2021. This will supplement informal mentorship on her part as well. Both types of mentoring have their place.

While it’s great to have a program in place to get more women into leadership roles, Paioff believes there’s something to be said for “creating a relationship of your own volition that feels potentially more authentic and more accessible at times. You end up creating a bond with someone and you feel like you could reach out at any time.”

Paioff has observed that women are less inclined to push themselves forward at meetings and for leadership roles. That needs to change.

“You are your own best advocate. I used to think that if you did a good job, good things would come. But I realized that no one else is advocating for you. So if you’re not going to advocate it doesn’t matter how good a job you’re doing. If you want something you have to ask, and ask for more.”

Change Needed From the Top Down

When asked about the change she’d like to see industry-wide, change needed from the top down is one issue Paioff is passionate about.

“There’s a total lack of women on boards across the industry. Having more women on boards would make a huge change, because it would be coming from the top.”

She notes that change “has to come from the top, because while there can be some change coming from the bottom, at the end of the day, the people at the top are the ones making the decisions so you need to have that diversity at the top.”

Finally, another change Paioff would like to see is increased training to make it easier to promote women throughout the organization.

“Many people are promoted from within, but if we don’t have women, the promotions are going to be lacking. I think it starts even before training at the recruitment phase. If you’re recruiting more women, then there are more women to train and promote.”

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