During Women’s History Month in March, the Extra Space Storage Women’s Employee Resource Group met with Chief Legal Officer Gwyn McNeal to explore the challenges women face in the workplace, raising a family, and advancing their careers.
McNeal joined Extra Space Storage in 2013 after representing the company for several years as outside counsel. During this candid conversation, she shares her experience of taking on a leadership role while raising a young family, her thoughts on work-life balance, and advice for women in the workplace. Below are highlights from the discussion.
Q: What is the most significant change you’ve seen with women “breaking the glass ceiling” at Extra Space Storage?
A: When I started with Extra Space, I always felt that everyone wanted women, minorities, and anybody who wasn’t typically in a position of power to have equal chances. It always felt fair that way. But I think the biggest difference in the last five years has been looking beyond making sure things are fair and asking that “extra question.” For example, if we put a job description out there and don’t get a diverse pool of applicants, asking ourselves, “Is there a reason for that? Can we word the job description better? Should we cast our net wider?” Similarly, for promotions, asking, “Why are there no underrepresented persons in this subset?” That does not mean we don’t always try to choose the most qualified person for the job. But it does mean that we’re making sure we are at least asking whether or not we’ve pushed hard enough to give equal opportunities to underrepresented communities.
Q: Have you had any mentors at Extra Space Storage or even before joining the company who have impacted your career?
A: Prior to Extra Space, I would say my mother. She was always a strong role model for me in terms of being comfortable in her own skin. Anything she wanted to go after, she was assertive and confident in her ability to have a seat at the table. So I always try to model myself after her.
Professionally, I think our former CEO Spencer Kirk was someone who saw something in me that I maybe didn’t see in myself. I appreciated his support and continued conversations with me about getting from one place in my career to the next. I remember a conversation with him when I doubted my ability to be a big-picture strategic person like he was. I appreciated his response that it’s all just a matter of training yourself and having confidence in your abilities. He was willing to see that ability in me and show me the path to get there.
Q: What motivated you to take on a leadership role at Extra Space Storage?
A: When I came to Extra Space, I was looking for work-life balance. With four young kids, I wasn’t interested in taking on a significant leadership role. I wanted to get my job done and do it well, but not take on a lot of travel or extra workload. At one point, Karl Haas, a former Extra Space Storage COO, was assigned to be my mentor. I was happy with my work-life balance; my work was interesting and challenging, but I’d still get to leave at a certain time and not have to think about it. But Karl pushed me to be more forward-thinking about my career. He pointed out that my boss would be retiring in the next few years, and if I didn’t start to position myself to even be considered for the role, I might look back and realize I missed a big opportunity. So I think getting that extra push motivated me to step up and be part of the leadership team.
Q: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career?
A: Be willing to take a chance on yourself. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a leader, and it took other people to see that in me. I look back and think, shame on me for not being willing to see that in myself and raise my own hand rather than waiting for someone to raise it for me. I was lucky to have people who were willing to push me in that way. But for a lot of us, if we’re not willing to push ourselves, nobody else will do it for us. Women often have a hard time self-promoting and want to be overqualified before applying for a promotion. But we have to be willing to take that chance instead of waiting to make sure we’re super ready and overqualified.
Q: How have you balanced a career and being a mom?
A: My two cents on motherhood and work is that you’re never going to get the balance exactly right. There will be times in your life when you feel like you’re short-changing your children by dedicating too much time to work, and there will also be times when you feel like you’re short-changing your employer because your energy and thoughts are going toward your kids. But when you get to a point where you can look back on your full body of work—your career and your family—you can see that you accomplished a lot on both fronts.
I was touched by the message that Ketanji Brown Jackson shared with her daughters during her recent Supreme Court hearings:
“Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood, and I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you have seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done. I am so looking forward to seeing what each of you chooses to do with your amazing lives in this incredible country. I love you so much.”
As a working mom, there are so many times when we feel like we’re getting it wrong. But for anyone who saw those confirmation hearings, you know her teenage and young-adult daughters were beaming with pride at their mother. I thought that was a great testament that we may not always get it right in the moment, but over the long run, I think we can find a way to have that balance.
Extra Space Storage is committed to creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Want to join us? Visit careers.extraspace.com to learn more about our company culture and job opportunities.