Why the industry must drop its obsession with the 9 to 5 office job to retain talented women

Ahead of this year's International Women's Day, Lisa Unwin, founder of She's Back, asks why marketing departments and creative businesses are failing to make their working practices family friendly.

Lisa Unwin, founder of She's Back
Lisa Unwin, founder of She's Back

Look around any marketing department and you will see a plethora of very capable young women. Move to the executive level and it's a different story: the vast majority of agency executives, senior creative directors and marketing directors are men.

Where do the women go? Why do they leave? And what do marketing departments need to do to get them back?

I had a great role as director of brand and communication at Deloitte, but when both my children started full time school juggling my career and their welfare just became too much. I was lucky enough, after 20 years of work, to be able to take a career break.

Getting back into work

With no help with childcare and no parents nearby I had limited capacity in the day. Fast forward five years, though, and I have a lot more available time, and although I do still have commitments around my children I felt ready to return to a challenging and fulfilling professional role. I am 48. That gives me a good 20 years to make a discernible difference.

Organisations seem unwilling to embrace all the tools and technologies that make flexible working possible

When I really looked at the market though, I didn’t see many organisations ready to recognise and value my capabilities. Most organisations still want women to do jobs in an office for the majority of the working week.

This makes no sense when we live and work in a 24/7 economy. People like me need to be able to work flexibly.

We will absolutely deliver but need a level of autonomy as to where and when. Organisations seem unwilling to embrace all the tools and technologies that make this possible. That’s why we set up She’s Back.

She’s Back enables experienced women to return to professional life after an extended career break. We have launched a unique research initiative to answer the questions above across a broad range ofindustry sectors.

And we’re partnering with agency DLKW Lowe, to call on women from creative industries who themselves have taken time off to complete a survey and help She’s Back tackle the answers.

Something to give

I am surrounded by women who share a similar story. All of them are more creative and energetic than ever but are channelling their energies into voluntary work, starting their own small businesses, running the PTA, writing a blog, becoming a magistrate, working for a charity, taking up a degree, retraining as a life coach. All fantastic and important things to do, provided they have a choice.

And at the moment, a return to a professional career doesn’t seem possible. Women should have a full range of choices. And they should be able to achieve their full economic potential. 

The flip side of this is that those senior women who have gone back are, in the main, struggling

None of my clients have this sorted. All of them are seeking to attract more women at a senior level. As DLKWLowe say, it just makes work a nicer place to be. However, the flip side of this is those senior women who have gone back are, in the main, struggling.

As one of my outstanding senior female clients said: "I think I’m exhausted, but I’m the only woman with small children at my level that I know who is just about making it through to the finish line."

Yet the huge influence women can have in this industry and how they can connect with consumers is lost when so many don't come back after having children.

It’s not solely about a balanced workforce and society. Women’s insight, empathy and experience are wasted assets for the industry."

Whilst there has undoubtedly been progress in recent years, with women now making up a quarter of senior roles in advertising according to the annual Agency Census published by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), still way short of 50/50, which is what the real world looks like.

Pretty shocking

I founded She’s Back because something has to change. Early results of our research indicate that women are leaving the creative industries because they cannot see how a more senior role fits with their wider ambitions. A huge proportion are telling us the left in order to start a family.

That’s pretty shocking and suggests they looked at their bosses above them and decided that combining a career with a family was just not possible. 

Rewarding delivery rather than hours worked could enable many more women to return to marketing

This is much more than a diversity and equality issue. It’s an issue that touches on the quality and impact of the work produced. The messaging, the media and how the results land with consumers.

Lack of retention 

True enough, marketing is relentless and in most departments the working day is long, time has to be spent in the office, meetings are held face-to-face and agile working is shunned.

As a result, despite having so many women in junior roles, it is difficult to retain women, particularly as they start to have children. Which is ironic, because that’s the point at which they can empathise even more with many of the consumers clients want to target.

The She’s Back research project is not just focused on spotlighting the issue. It’s also looking for solutions. One of the conclusions - it’s all about flexibility.

Rewarding delivery rather than hours worked; valuing productivity; and creating alternative career paths, using the same technologies that are redefining our industry. The adoption of agile working and a whole new way of thinking about work could enable many more women to return to marketing.

And who knows, seeing real women above them, having a career and a family, might make more of the younger women stay.


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