Feature

Breaking the glass lion

The advertising industry is guilty of spending too long admiring the problem of gender diversity, while away from the headlines real change still lags behind the rhetoric, writes Nicola Kemp.

Breaking the glass lion

Why are we still writing about the lack of gender diversity in advertising – surely there is nothing more to be said? If column inches alone could solve one of the industry’s biggest problems, then that box could be considered ticked. Yet in the manner of the women who once again picked up their placards this year in marches across the globe to ask, "Why are we still -protesting this shit?", the industry as a whole is yet to adequately tackle the palpable absence of -creative equality.

You don’t need to look very hard to uncover evidence of just how far it still has to go to stamp out gender discrimination. Take the managing partner told to come back from maternity leave after six months if she wanted a career – 12 months if she wanted a job. Or the director -silently ejected from a company after publicly humiliating a female colleague with a fake naked picture at a social event. Then there’s the global chief executive without the faintest idea of what constitutes maternity law, and the HR team too gutless to enlighten him. 

The countless -examples of discrimination, alongside the -myriad tiny paper cuts of everyday sexism, may lose their devastating human cost when they are seen in cold print. However, they confirm the maintenance of an industry culture that enables the sexism of a bygone age to thrive.

Ali Hanan, founder and CEO of gender- diversity organisation Creative Equals, says many promising careers are cut short because women’s creative talent has gone unrecognised, uncultivated or virtually ignored. Creative Equals’ research shows that 70%-75% of women are working as a minority in their department; many where under 10% of the staff are female. Rather than working in a diverse, inclusive environment, they find themselves as a minority in an "exclusive" culture, and on the sidelines.

Hanan explains: "The forward-thinking, groundbreaking beer or automotive brand will go to the all-male team, while female creatives often find themselves on the conservative beauty or ‘female’ brands. Their careers stagnate."

It is a state of affairs that means even Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld, a social change platform, and sextech start-up MakeLoveNotPorn, doesn’t want to talk about diversity. "The questions you pose are better answered by other women in our industry who are not fed up to their back teeth, as I am, with being asked the same questions over and over again about why change hasn’t happened, and with giving the same answers, with those answers having no visible impact or effect," she says. "You really don’t want to hear me say this all over again in the same way that I’ve been saying it for the past, god knows how many, years." 

The action gap

Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

There is no question that in some corners of the industry, talking about the problems of -diversity has, in effect, become a substitute for the root-and-branch reform necessary to tackle them. 

The two are not mutually -exclusive, but the business leader who attends a black-tie function to discuss the lack of women in leadership with other women in positions of leadership, may find herself in an unvirtuous circle of inaction. 

Indeed, the industry’s tendency to elevate the importance of evening networking events is, in itself, part of the problem of retaining female talent, particularly those who become mothers.

Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, believes that the industry has reached a point at which it must try to take some practical steps to drive change, rather than simply prolong the debate. The approach requires celebrating and normalising the initiatives that get it right, while calling out the "bad stuff". It’s action that Snowball -describes as "unpleasant, difficult and requiring great courage".

Rhetoric and reality

The shortcomings of only talking a good game on diversity was highlighted by The Future Laboratory’s recent Female Future Forum research in which Natalie Campbell, co-founder of global social innovation agency A Very Good Company, articulated the action gap. She said: "I have sat around the table with CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, and they all said the same thing: ‘We want to help women, blah, blah, blah.’ When you say to them, ‘OK, we are setting up a fund to invest in businesses, why don’t you focus some of that time, money and effort on female-owned companies,’ they all basically reply, ‘Oh no, we don’t want to do that.’"

This action gap is particularly untenable in the marketing and ad industries. As Tracey Follows, chief strategy and innovation officer at The Future Laboratory, points out, the ad industry has signed off on feminism and is using it as a marketing campaign, packaging it up as a marketing initiative. She describes much of this approach as a "box-ticking exercise". 

In contrast, The Future Laboratory’s research shows that Generation Z views equality as non-negotiable. "This generation doesn’t talk about diversity, it talks about equality," adds Follows. "An equal system takes diversity for granted. Activists are voting with their feet – Gen Z feels suffocated in this system."

She believes the situation requires action. "I would put quotas in creative departments. Unless they are willing to make the shift, agencies will remain incredibly hierarchical. They are still patriarchal and -reactive, and there is nothing very dynamic about inaction."

Quotas are also advocated by Mercedes Erra, co-founder of BETC and executive president of Havas Worldwide. "In France, women would never have been on boards without that law being introduced," she says. "There is no law for executive committee parity, so women are still staying at the door. It shows it will be a huge task, which demands a strong political vision at the highest level, both in governments and companies."

The meritocracy myth

In some circles, there remains a -reluctance to view quotas as necessary. Campaign has received a clutch of complaints from men who believe they are being actively discriminated against, on the grounds that recruiters are seeking women to fulfil certain senior positions. The criticisms are based on the premise that the industry is essentially meritocratic by design. 

Melissa Robertson, chief executive and co-founder of Now, the ad agency that handles the Women’s Equality Party, says: "I believe in meritocracy – the problem is that merit is in the eye of the merit- giver. There are -centuries of bias to overcome." 

Robertson believes a big challenge remains in getting the right policies in place to achieve diversity. She explains: "It’s like seatbelts and smoking. Until [tackling gender inequality] becomes enshrined in law, it will remain so ingrained and done unconsciously that it will be difficult to challenge." 

Making progress, she says, can sometimes hurt. She points to Now’s introduction of the London Living Wage, which came with a cost burden. "It is about making things happen. Sometimes we have to say that we’re just going to fucking do it," she adds.

The impetus to do something may also be given a boost by the commercial imperative, as enlightened marketing directors effectively -discount agencies who pay only lip-service to diversity. Kevin McNair, marketing director at Britvic, explains: "At Britvic, we want to matter to more people, and with that comes a need to understand people better. Workplace diversity is essential – it results in much better ideas and results. In the current creative agency pitch work we are doing, one of the key questions we asked up front, before we even had the chemistry session, was [aimed at establishing] the agencies’ diversity. This was important because we want to work with agencies that are already doing this, not just talking about it. Agencies who do not reflect -society will lose out, so change is essential."

In the face of this commercial pressure, it is no surprise that diversity is top of the agenda. Annette King, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather UK, claims that most businesses in the industry are attempting to change. "Many aren’t moving fast enough or widely enough, but most are trying. More businesses are providing initiatives, from flexible working policies and -diversity courses to adaptive training, development programmes and customisable benefits packages," she says.

Default bias

By ignoring diversity, businesses continue to create products and services that perpetuate bias.

  • 40% of women in the UK feel that most technology is made for men, by men.
  • In July 2015, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that women were less likely than men to be shown ads on Google for highly paid jobs.
  • So far in 2017, ex-employees have shared allegations of sexism and harassment at Uber, Tesla and Magic Leap.
  • Apple Health was initially launched without a period tracker.

Beware of the backlash

However, the industry should be wary of viewing the path toward positive change as either a linear, or inevitable, progression. All signs point to a backlash, meaning that companies are prone to lean toward a defensive position. 

A recent LinkedIn post discussing the theme of this very feature provoked comments on the propensity of Haymarket Media Group (owner of Campaign) to employ a high proportion of women, nearly all blonde, and "posh". One comment even suggested that "diversity has been subverted by posh white girls -pursuing a selfish agenda". 

Another declared that the answer to the lack of diversity in advertising is down to the fact that "women have children and therefore different priorities. The biological maternal instinct sometimes supersedes the need to work 12-hour days on planning an ad campaign for the next ‘skinny’ brownie". 

It is a fair assessment that were you to canvas LinkedIn on topics such as programmatic advertising or artificial intelligence, it is unlikely that the colour of your hair would become part of the debate. 

For those outside the circle of power, it may be easier to keep quiet. But Victoria Buchanan, executive creative director at Tribal Worldwide London, argues that creative businesses need to change creative reviews and "boys’ clubs", and the aggressive behaviour that so often takes place in the boardrooms. "If you see it, it’s important to call it out and make clear that it’s just not acceptable," she says. "Women should also be given career opportunities on potential and ability – men get considered on potential a lot more."

Sweat the small stuff

Companies that have succeeded in driving -diversity have often seen it as important enough to make a trade-off – of time, resources, investment and even personal reputation. Josh Graff, UK country manager and vice-president EMEA at LinkedIn, has dedicated significant resources to driving diversity. "We recognised that we might need to reduce the speed at which we were hiring until the slate was 50:50. If we had 25 candidates and only five were women, we would delay hiring until that was addressed. Small changes brought tangible results, such as ensuring the interview panel was diverse."

The company also addressed the thorny issue of language. "There were so many instances where we were referring to ‘he’," Graff says. "It’s a small difference, but one that delivered a -significant impact and has permeated through the organisation."

The power of these incremental changes should not be underestimated. The biggest irony of all is that the conversation surrounding gender diversity may be inadvertently reinforcing the status quo. Media coverage of women in business, which still focuses on breaking glass ceilings or walls (or the latest -iteration therein), could serve to perpetuate inequality. 

Gallop admits that journalists contact her wanting to cover the challenges she has faced in finding investors and funding for MakeLoveNotPorn, and shine a light on her company. And yet, by writing an -article on "why sextech founders can’t get funded", in effect they give Silicon Valley a positive reinforcement about not funding them. 

This confirmation bias is a serious challenge. "Language matters. How you phrase things matters. This is why I am about communication through demonstration," Gallop adds.

It is a problem articulated by historian Mary Beard, writing in the London Review of Books: "Women are still perceived as belonging outside power. Whether we sincerely want them to get to the inside of it or whether, by various often unconscious means, we cast women as -interlopers when they make it, the shared -metaphors we use of female access to power – knocking on the door, storming the citadel, smashing the glass ceiling, or just giving them a leg up – underline female exteriority. Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or -alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled." 

Writing in the London Review of Books, Mary Beard argues that we need to consider ‘why we thinks as we do’

She continues: "We need to look a lot more carefully at our cultural assumptions about women’s relationship with power. Workplace nurseries, family-friendly hours, mentoring schemes and all those practical things are importantly enabling, but they are only part of what we need to be doing. If we want to give women as a gender – and not just in the shape of a few determined individuals – their place on the inside of the structures of power, we have to think harder about how and why we think as we do."

Creativity is the cure

A unique source of inspiration in the midst of this sludge of divisive language, inaction and confirmation bias is the creative women who have reshaped the industry in their own image. Madonna Badger, co-founder of ad, branding and design agency Badger & Winters and the creative pioneer behind the -#WomenNotObjects campaign to end the objectification of women in advertising, is the ambassador for the See It Be It programme, which aims to increase the proportion of women in agency creative departments, at Cannes this year. "I had to change the structure and the normal processes around me," she recalls. "I did it by creating my own job – other women do it by starting women’s groups in their workplace."

She continues: "Question the status quo. Leaning in is about finding your own courage and confidence to change not only yourself, but also what you experience around you that isn’t right. They go hand in hand."

Indeed, there is no shortage of women using creativity as an antidote to the blandness and mediocrity that is implicit in enabling bias to thrive. Gal Barradas, co-founder and co-chief executive of BETC Sao Paulo, points to the example of the agency’s work in -developing an app that tracks how many times women are interrupted by a man when talking. "After -developing the app eight months ago, we find that the very fact that people know it exists means women are interrupted less," she says. 

According to Barradas, this is just one example of the ways in which women in the workplace, especially in emerging markets such as Brazil, are a force for change. Elsewhere, at Mother New York, "The Pregnancy Pause" campaign aimed to destigmatise maternity leave and being out of paid employment by creating a space for women to celebrate it instead of hiding it from view.

From fitting in to creating space

The experience of hiding who you are, or what you want or care about, is -perhaps a less familiar theme in the -stories of creative pioneers and female leadership, but no less important. 

Laura Visco, creative director at 72andSunny Amsterdam, recalls getting her first placement in advertising at the age of 19. At the time, she was the only female copywriter in the building. "I was constantly discouraged by teachers, family, friends, strangers, literally everyone, from pursuing my career as a creative," she says. "I kept on hearing, ‘It’s a man’s thing for a reason’."

Visco was told that women can’t be creative, that they can’t work long hours or be funny. "The truth is, there was no reason," she continues. "Really. None. I wish I had known that back then, because what I did was quite the opposite: the 19-year-old me totally erased every feminine part of herself to fit into the man’s world. I started to talk like men, behave like men, even dress like men. I became one of ‘the boys’, until I realised that that was completely ridiculous. I didn’t need to fit in. I didn’t need to become this ‘idea’ of what a creative should be. I didn’t need to be a man. I didn’t need to act like someone else."

When the conversation about equal-ity relies less on the binary rhetoric of lean in, and more on the everyday, but nonetheless beautiful, commitments of working and living – not living to work – it automatically becomes more inclusive and authentic.

As Erra concludes: "I’m sure I haven’t had the same career that I would have had if I’d been a man, especially because of the lack of time. I’ve always felt that I have to take care of my children, my family, my house, and the result was that I’ve always been running after time. I have no regrets at all, but it shouldn’t be seen as normal that a woman has to work so much to succeed."

Change the narrative

The paradox is that instead of driving change, the rhetoric surrounding gender equality has in many ways served to leave things little altered and underline women’s position as outside the structures of power. Less talk, more action is a simple, tangible mantra for diversity. Ultimately, however, it is in many ways overly simplistic. To move from the realms of rhetoric to make genuine strides toward equality, the industry must create space for more voices to be heard. The responsibility lies with industry leaders – not to seek out talent in their own image, but to reshape the industry to make it fit for purpose for future generations.

Laura Weston, managing director at Iris Culture, says that women who succeed in advertising have often had to make sacrifices and prioritise work over their home life, which is no longer acceptable. "Businesses need to understand that and, quite frankly, the next generation are not willing to make the same sacrifices so they are demanding change," she adds.

At the heart of this change is fostering a culture of inclusivity, one that works only if men and women speak out and challenge both themselves and existing practices. From hiring processes to the elevation of presenteeism, the best creative pioneers will be agents for generating change, not just column inches. 

Individuals must also take personal responsibility for articulating what needs to change, not only for themselves but also to ensure that the next generation does not find itself "still protesting this shit". 

As Snowball explains: "As I child I was brought up to not say ‘I want’, and told that ‘I want never gets’. But we have to say what we want, for example around flexible working. It’s about having the courage to say what you want and what you don’t want." 

Diversity may have hit "peak thought- leadership", but the silent, steady stream of talent draining from the industry suggests that all too many voices still -remain unheard. 

Changing the ratio 

Three steps that companies can take right now to increase female diversity 

Gender diversity is a much-discussed idea, but is far from fully celebrated. While there are awards, roundtables and initiatives that demonstrate the fundamental need for greater equality, the advertising industry needs to revolutionise the entire recruitment process if a complete gender balance is to be achieved, writes Nishma Robb, head of ads marketing and chair of women@google at Google UK.

1 Redefining top talent

We need to take a step back and redefine what we look for when recruiting "top talent". Analysing real behaviour should become a primary factor in interview processes, prioritised above achievements and academic success. This is especially important for women, who are more likely to underplay their successes in job interviews. By highlighting behavioural characteristics, organisations can consider whether a specific personality type fits with the culture and role – two hugely fundamental factors in overall employee success. 

2 Redesigning the workplace culture

Traditional ways of working no longer appeal to many. For women who have had children and are looking to return to work, there is a need for flexibility and workplace support.

A handful of companies seem to recognise this and are moving away from traditional working structures, embracing the new age of employment. For example, businesses that provide unlimited holidays, flexible working and benefits that appeal to each individual’s own working preferences will inspire employees to produce their best work, which is further enhanced by the fact that they feel trusted and valued by the organisation.

3 Accelerating the pace of change 

Technologies such as machine learning, advanced data analytics and AI are starting to transform the workplace, but are still in the early stages of development. From girls in primary school to women in senior leadership positions, everyone should be front and centre in the development of technologies that have a fundamental impact on the entire world as we know it. 

We have a long way to go before we reach an optimum level of workplace diversity. But instead of gradually revolutionising workplace processes, it is fundamental that we – as an industry – come together quickly to implement change and help create a world that puts gender diversity at its core.